I’m flying the flag for failure

February 2021

A few weeks ago, I talked at an event about failure and the reason I’m writing about it now, (failure that is not the event), is because it struck me that we hardly ever do and certainly not in a positive light. 

Culturally it seems, we gauge everything on success, psychologically that’s almost ingrained into our collective psyche. It’s ‘tell me about what you achieved here, what you did, the impact’. That seems to be the universal cross sector approach to taking the next step up the ladder. I’ve always felt that you only get part of the picture with this approach, it’s like outlining a dream scenario where everything is perfect, falls into line and works. Sometimes that can happen but as the majority of us don’t possess outwardly gifts to ensure it does, when it does occur perhaps this might be due to luck, timing or some other external factor. Invariably we have the more familiar scenario when sometimes s**t goes south. What’s this like? Well I think we’ve all been there, it’s stressful, often public and despite our collective best efforts, not the outcome we were looking for. Not only do I think failure is a good thing, but something that we should actively try to replicate. Culturally our organisations don’t allow it- but I’m making the case for it here because I guarantee that when you reflect on failure, you will take more from it than the (relatively easy) wins.

We need to reframe failure as a key learning opportunity and if we can build an approach around that by applying some principles - we will be far better off going forward. I certainly wish that message had been shared with me 20 plus years ago, when I started in the world of work, that’s for sure.

Now here comes the science bit - as a certain advertising campaign used to say. First, we have to start with a definition of failure or as Sim Sitkin, (Duke University – Distinguished Professor of Leadership) described in ‘Learning through failure: The strategy of small losses (1992)’ Intelligent Failures.

Rather than failure being a feedback process, he suggests that we should actively try to generate failure as a proactive way of learning. This isn’t failing fast or trial and error, as always the language we use and the signals that we send to our colleagues is significant – this is test and learn. I like this approach by Failing Forward, they believe we must follow four stages. As you will see from the diagram below failing intelligently is a process or a loop, allowing us to move forward from failure stronger and wiser.

  • Detect and accept our failures quickly
  • Analyse what happened and how it happened effectively to maximize what we can learn.
  • Apply our learning to change our mindsets, behaviours, experiment in the way we do our work.
  • Continue to take smart risks and innovate, ensuring we make better mistakes on our next bold attempt.

Instinctively as Sim Siktin wrote we are conditioned to exit the process rather than follow the loop.

Essentially a key question we should ask ourselves is, ‘If we arrive at consistent success what have we sacrificed in order to do so?’.

Building a Learning Culture

So how can we start to challenge and change how we view failure? As always it starts at the top, only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures.

In our work around Inclusive Leadership we talk about the importance of being authentic and imperfect– the realisation that we cannot be perfect all the time, and that being perfect is an unrealistic expectation to present to both our colleagues and the people we manage. Leadership therefore has to be vulnerable first and often. What do I mean by that? I suppose being unsure, not having all or any of the answers when people look to you (sometimes) is a starting point.

Authority Bias

There has been lots of discussion recently about bias but I want to highlight Authority Bias.

This is tendency to follow without question the instructions and view of a person in authority, historically that would have been kings and queens, now its politicians and in the context of work business leaders. Essentially, we are wired to accept authority, so if your boss tells you to do something, our in built computer says follow orders, we do it regardless of what the merits of this instruction are, or more worryingly if we know it’s wrong. I’d like to challenge the notion that having one person tell people what to do is a universally reliable way to make good decisions or to bring the best out of people.

Home-schooling, an analogy for getting it wrong

At the time or writing this, I like so many parents am back living my secret double life as a (bad) teacher. My daughter is a great kid (I’m biased) and she likes to get things right, and is almost scared of saying something in case it’s wrong. We’ve been doing a lot of stuff around Maths and my intention has been to increase her confidence in the subject. So when we are working through questions or problems and she gives me the correct answer I take the time to make sure its not a guess and she’s worked it out, understands the process to do it again with different problems or numbers. I start by creating an environment whereby it is ok to say the wrong thing, showing her how this is helpful because we can then look at where she went wrong in order to find a way for her to correct her mistake - a great example of intelligent failure. The most important thing though is to learn through these interactions, by questioning and making suggestions. If only we were allowed to do this more at work, look at the process rather than focus solely on the result and how someone got there.

I mention this because of a psychologist Robert Rosenthal from Harvard came up with a test which is now referred to as the Pygmalion effect whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.

So is this relevant in the workplace? Yes absolutely, management expectations of employees can also alter management behaviour, and subsequently affect staff results.

If you receive frequent recognition from your boss, you are likely to feel motivated and will tend to achieve an even better performance. The caveat to this is that care has to be taken not to focus on people in your ‘in group’, people like you that you will be naturally drawn to, (remember the other bias, the inherent kind).

If, however as an individual you are continuously questioned and your work is ruthlessly criticized, the quality of your work can suffer. So let’s ask a hypothetical question, what would happen if management and leadership actively and consistently raised expectations about intelligent failure?

The pivotal moment

When you’re working with new people or in a new group, there are two critical moments in lifecycle of the groups that will determine what happens next, future group dynamics and outputs.

  • The first vulnerability
  • The first disagreement

At this moment you need to ask yourself, is it about appearing strong or exploring together?

Is it about winning interactions, establishing dominance within the group or about learning together?


Try to develop your own (& your teams) self-awareness because every team occasionally gets stuck in bad patterns or unhealthy dynamics.

Awareness helps us to change bad habits over time so deliver negative feedback in person or virtually face to face, this will deal with tension in an upfront & honest way and helps to limit misunderstandings.

As an individual or leader over communicate expectations that are linked to co-operation (this sends a powerful message to the group that to solve complex problems you need help).

Introduce processes that open up vulnerabilities and challenge for your team.

Director blog

From time to time, I post a mixture of short form and longer reads here, it might be in connection to a project, a conversation or something that I’ve seen that’s moved me to share my thoughts. I hope you enjoy reading them.

I’m flying the flag for failure

A few weeks ago, I talked at an event about failure and the reason I’m writing about it now, (failure that is not the event), is because it struck me that we hardly ever do and certainly not in a positive light.


What's going on

In 1971 Marvin Gaye released his seminal classic concept album ‘What’s Going On’, featuring a Vietnam veteran returning to America to witness hatred suffering and injustice. It just seemed appropriate to use this amazing piece of music – a searing documentation of the struggles of people at the time as the title of this blog.


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