Today’s post defines what it means to embrace failure.
“Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.”
– John Wooden
My favorite all-time interview question is simple: Tell me about a time when you tried to do something and failed (the worse, the better), and how you handled it. The answer to this one question tells me a lot about the candidate, and sometimes determines whether we’re going to be working together. I’ve had people look me in the eye, straight-faced, and respond, “I honestly can’t remember the last time I failed.”
Me: “OK. . . what about outside of work? Hobbies, sports, home improvement?”
Them: “. . . no, I can’t really think of anything. I tend to do things really well.”
Me (suppressing an eye roll): “Wow. That’s really impressive!”
A second group of responses (I’ll call these “neutral”) follows the more normal interview path, where the candidate answers the question, but just barely. They admit failure, but don’t really embrace it. “One time, I turned the wrong way up a one-way street. I had to pull over, and do a U-turn. It was crazy.” Or this one, “I ordered the wrong size printer cartridge.”
Me: “What did you do when that happened?”
Them: “Well, I sent it back, and ordered a new one.”
Me: “And then what?”
Them: “. . .then. . . the new one arrived, and we started printing again.”
Me: “Do you know if that ever happened again?”
Them: “Oh yeah, it happened all the time!”
I can’t blame people for being either too nervous to admit to failing or having never been shown how to embrace failure, but I can be thrilled when I interview someone who falls into this last group – those who embrace failure. See if you can spot the difference. “Oh man, this one time, I screwed up big time! We were on this big push at work to improve trailer utilization, so I added an extra stop at the end of a route to test our 6-stop daily limit.”
Me: “What happened?”
Them: “The last stop had already closed up shop by the time the truck arrived. The driver called me at home that night to ‘express his displeasure.'”
Me: “What did you do?”
Them: “I paid for his dinner, and called him back to apologize. He was actually much more laid back than I would have been. Then, I changed our SOP on routing trucks to make sure we call and confirm closing times any time we added a 7th stop to a route.”
Me: “So you started adding stops?”
Them: “Only if the store was going to be open. It worked out really well for the customer – we ended up improving trailer utilization by 3%, and saving the customer about $2,000 per week on transportation.”
Me (wiping the tear from my eye): “Let’s talk salary. . .”
What was it about the third candidate that made her stand out? Simple – she embraced failure. As a Lean manager, if you’re attempting to create a culture that embraces continuous improvement, you have to do more than be willing to fail – you have to learn to embrace failure for you and your team.
What does it mean to embrace failure?
My brain works best in analogies, and the one that best works here is pigs rolling around in the mud. One part of embracing failure is admitting to failure, being ok with the fact that failure is a part of life, and we have to expect it to happen. This is the equivalent of knowing that you’re going hiking, and it might get muddy, so you wear mud boots. While this is a good start, it doesn’t really get us to an improvement mindset – we don’t learn anything from the experience that may help us improve in the future.
The second part of embracing failure is getting down into the mud and bathing in it. Does that mean wallowing around in self pity when things don’t go according to plan? Absolutely not! Rather, we have to get down close to the failure to truly examine it. We have to treat the failure as a learning experience and figure out why it happened, what the consequences were, and what we could do differently the next time. Let’s face it – you can’t do that with mud boots on.
In his book “Creativity, Inc.” Pixar Cofounder Ed Catmull spends a lot of time discussing how to embrace and encourage failure. I’ll let him explain what it looks like to embrace failure: “(Many people) think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy — trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it — dooms you to fail.”
We’ll spend time in an upcoming post discussing how to create a culture that embraces failure. But for now, I’ll leave you with a simple question: Will your team spend more time this week avoiding or embracing failure?
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