Friday, February 27, 2009

Choose to Be a Failure-Tolerant Leader

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

Henry Ford

Reckless person To choose responsibly is the critical value for a commanding leader because choice determines how well leaders manage adversity, setbacks, and failure. (1) Richard Farson and his colleagues studied a number of “failure-tolerant” leaders in business, politics, sports, and science. They reported that leaders such as Robert Shapiro, former CEO of Monsanto, were troubled to find that their organizational cultures had conditioned employees to view unsuccessful products or projects as personal failures. To encourage more of an experimentation mindset, which is essential for innovation, Shapiro and these other failure-tolerant leaders employed a number of strategies, including the following:

1. Distinguish between excusable and inexcusable failure. Employees must know that failure is OK, but sloppy work will not be tolerated. Implement after action reviews that ask probing questions, such as:

- Why did the failure occur?

- Was the scope document and statement of work based on reality?

- How well was the project organized?

- Did the project manager collaborate and consult with the right people?

- What are the lessons learned and how are they disseminated?

2. Engage the person, not the project. Leaders who show a genuine interest in the employees’ growth and not just the status of the project, send the message that learning and development are just as important as project success.

3. Don't praise or criticize. Farson and his colleagues found that creativity decreases with praise. Employees actually want their leaders to be more interested in their work, and less focused on patting them on the back for the work. Robert Pirsig was correct when he wrote that caring is the precursor of quality. When the leader takes a nonjudgmental, yet caring interest in the work itself and the ongoing learning, employees are more willing to tolerate failure.

4. Fess up when you mess up. Leaders who candidly admit their own mistakes communicate that experimentation and learning is desired. Former CEO of Coke, Roberto Goizueta took responsibility, and years of ribbing, for the New Coke fiasco that occurred during his time at the helm. Admitting his mistake and laughing at himself taught more than hundreds of memos and speeches.

5. Collaborate, don't compete. Post-it notes might not be here today if 3M’s Spencer Silver had worried about competing and hoarding information about the "flawed" adhesive he invented with another colleague. 3M rewards collaboration and information exchange, not silo building.

These are a few ways to encourage your team to understand that failure is not only excusable, it is desirable. Adapt them to your environment to encourage everyone to choose to look at failure as learning opportunities. Let me know what works for you.

“The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”

Thomas Watson, Sr., IBM

Keep failing,


Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes; The Failure-Tolerant Leader, Harvard Business Review, August 2002, 3 - 8.


Susan de la Vergne said...

The term “failure-tolerant” reminds me of “fault tolerant,” a design characteristic of high availability systems that allows them to function somewhat optimally despite an error somewhere. A “fault-intolerant” system would be fragile, not robust, just as a failure-intolerant organization culture is—frail, weak, apt to snap.
If we can build fault tolerance into critical, complex, sometimes life-sustaining technology systems, surely we should be able to see the wisdom of adopting this as a practical leadership principle.

Dave Jensen, Leadership Expert said...

Hi Susan,

Thanks for your great comments. It seems that systems engineering has it right, as does research/science with its experimental approach.

I'll keep teaching it in my leadership classes and with leaders like you, eventually this mindset will prevail.


Eshan said...

Excellent stuff!!! Leadership developing skills will help make your team's leadership essentials, which will ensure you are more than likely to have a vivid career path ahead of you. Thanks for sharing with us. Leadership skills development training programs