Embracing Micro-Failure

How granting others permission, authority and even incentive to fail can lead to quicker, deeper, more lasting success.

“Look at all of your work as an experiment — a pilot — and plan upfront for several review points along the way that allow you to correct your course or exit altogether. First drafts are rarely your best work. It is the thousand little edits and mid-course corrections that create excellence. Smart failures are a badge of honor.”   – Larry Blumenthal

Here are a few thoughts on how leaders can enable micro-failure:

  • Permission to Fail – Let people know it’s okay to fail. And be explicit. (One team I know adopted the motto: “Have you failed today?”) Not only will it contribute to a positive team environment, but individuals with permission to fail also have permission to take risks and push boundaries, question assumptions, and ask for help when they need it.
  • Authority to Fail – Giving your colleagues, employees, or volunteers tacit or even explicit permission to fail does little good if they haven’t even got enough rope to hang themselves. It’s a lot easier to delegate tasks than to delegate authority. But real autonomy and decision-making power ensures credit as well as accountability. And it’s a lot easier to learn from a mistake we feel we own.
  • Incentive to Fail – It sounds counter-intuitive, but find ways to reward and celebrate failures (or at least the resultant lessons.) Regularly sharing micro-failures within a team, passing around your own “fail whale” trophy, and mapping past failures to current success can help make your organization a “fail-safe” environment.

After all,

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”   -Theodore Roosevelt

Failing Forward

A friend shared a video with me (well, with the world) a few days ago, that makes some interesting connections to development. You can see it here.

The video is about failure. About its role in innovation and competition. About its consequences (both painful and productive) and about how it can transform our view of the past and shape our futures.

Easterly talks a lot about failure in White Man’s Burden. And I have to agree that most of the efforts of international aid have done little good, and in some cases, a great deal of harm. But if something as relatively simple as designing a race car entails such dramatic, such profound, such persistant failure, how can we expect something as complex, convoluted and nuanced as “development” to come without it?!

Perhaps the problem is not so much that we fail, that our efforts fall short of our goals (and the needs of the people we work with). Perhaps the problem is with how we fail. The parts of Easterly’s argument I find most compelling are the bits about evaluation, about context and localization, about empowerment and accountability.

  • Would we fail differently if we focused our problem-solving on local outbreaks instead of global pandemics?
  • Would we fail differently if recipients instead of donors set the criteria for success?
  • Would we fail differently if we explored outcomes instead of simply tracking outputs?

It seems to me that failure is inherent to dealing with any problem worth solving. That no effort, no matter how carefully planned, how painstakingly executed, will come off without hitches, without un-intended consequences. That we will probably (realistically…objectively) fail more than we succeed.

But, it also seems to me that failure is not a reason to stop striving. I’m not willing to throw up my hands and turn my back because I didn’t stop the spread of AIDS in Africa (or the gang activity in the middle school down the street) with my first attempt…or my fiftieth. But I would be equally foolish not to learn from those failures. If I am continually failing differently, those failures will become stepping stones, and eventually I will succeed.