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Make 2015 the Year Your Company Fails Better

Make 2015 the Year Your Company Fails Better

By: Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn, authors of FAIL BETTER: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner (HBR Press, 2014)

No matter how forward-looking or agile companies aim to be, workplaces don't look on failure kindly. Yet anyone who wants to innovate knows that there's a risk that things won't go as planned.

Here’s the silver lining: when things go off track this can be a good thing, if you’re prepared to harness the benefits. Managers, teams and companies can plan for, and even craft, a better kind of failure.

In our book, Fail Better, we explain how to enable small-scale and affordable failures that are linked to broader goals and designed to reveal key insights quickly.

The six tips below will help make failure work for you.

Elevate the humble project. No need to wait for a eureka flash of brilliance or a fall-from-the sky insight. You can use your current work as your sandbox for experimentation.

Think about every effort to create a novel product, result, or service as a project. Your projects are the vehicle for innovation and progress. In the end, only if projects succeed will you, your team, and your company do well in a changing market.

Cultivate a mindset that sees projects as crucibles for improvement, learning, and new ideas, and you can design smart mistakes into your everyday work.

Know your limits. Along with your personal tolerance for mistakes, it’s important to know within your company what’s riding on the success of your project.

By doing this, you’ll know how much “messing up” your project can afford -- and to assess how much your client, boss, or organization values insights gleaned through failure.

Look at all three arenas at the outset of your next project to define the boundaries for your own trial-and-error experiments, and determine if you need to win over others to support your approach.

Map out the thinking behind your project plan to generate productive surprises. Yes, you need to do work planning, but we’re talking about going further. Start by identifying the problem you’re trying to solve, the outcomes you desire, and the actions you think will get you there.

Make the linkages between cause and effect a little more explicit, so that when your team encounters something unexpected while carrying out the project, you can pounce on it, figure out what it might mean, and adjust next steps as a result.

Scale back on grandiose one-shot efforts. Iterate instead. Plan your work in repeatable chunks that you can try out early -- and then revamp, iterate, and improve upon everything.

Nothing beats a real-world test! Prioritize actions that will yield the most useful information first -- the type of information which challenges a core assumption, tests a prominent concept, or represents a proposed solution to the problem at hand.

Kayak.com is a great example of this practice. The website presents two versions of their home page every week, determining which version performed better; the information is then used to design the next round.

If you have scope to try again, making tweaks along the way, you’ll be more open to finding opportunities for improvement.

Be kind but discerning. No one is born with an ability to talk about failure in the moment. Talking about failures in a professionally appropriate way may take practice.

Focus on demonstrating compassion, both to yourself and others, in the face of disappointing results, enabling team members to both learn and perform, and communicating with honesty and without shaming. 

Even if you aim to tolerate -- and embrace -- failures, not every mistake is beneficial. Failures arising from lack of attention, insufficient effort, or disregard for the data must be weeded out from the rest, otherwise you run the risk of encouraging poor performance.   

Figure out three things to take away from every project (and share them). It’s easy at the end of a project to rush on to the next thing, but the seeds of future failures are often sown in this critical wrap-up moment.

Carve out time to extract and share actionable lessons. It need not be complicated. Try just three steps to help identify and document:

  • One thing you did you should not do again in future projects
  • One new thing you tried that is worth doing again
  • Something new you learned about the world that others in your company could use to inform and improve their work.

If every employee committed to this single activity, imagine the resulting cumulative learning!

Many a corporate hero tells a story of failures that paved the way to eventual success. Inspiring as they are, such stories don’t tell you how to actually create the conditions for and capture the benefits of productive failures. These six tips will equip you to begin failing better.

The best part? You don’t need anyone’s permission or even any extra investment -- just the sandbox of your own work and the practical methods we’ve outlined here.

Start today and make 2015 the year in which you, your team, and your company fail better.

We then invite you to share your insights by visiting our website at FailBetterbyDesign.com!

Author Bios:
Anjali Sastry
is senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and lecturer in the department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Her research investigates global health delivery and management, applying systems thinking and practical, business-based approaches in low-resource settings.

Kara Penn is cofounder and principal consultant at Mission Spark, where she works on the front lines of practical management to implement new approaches in complex settings. She has led award-winning community collaboratives; designed, managed and evaluated multi-year social change initiatives; and guided more than sity NGOs, social enterprises, corporations and foundations.