You’d never wish failure upon your colleagues but, according to new research, maybe you should.
Humans are hardwired to avoid failing. We hate the feeling of getting something wrong or making a mistake at work; it often feels personal when it’s not.
Schools, universities and workplaces are all structured to punish failure and lionise success.
But are there long term gains to be made from failing early in your career? And does the old adage ‘fail early, fail often’ actually hold water?
The long game
New research from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management gives credence to the cliche that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.
The researchers studied two groups of junior scientists who were “statistically indistinguishable”. Both groups applied for grants with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).One barely scraped through (the narrow win group) and the other just missed out on receiving a grant (the near-miss group).
Over the next ten years, they monitored the success of both groups’ research papers. While the people in both produced a similar amount of work, there was a difference in the amount of ‘hit’ papers (a paper defined as placing in the top 5 per cent of citations received in the same year and field).
Interestingly, the group that experienced setbacks early in their careers were more likely to produce a ‘hit’ paper down the line, at an average rate of 16.1 per cent for the near-miss group compared to 13.3 per cent for the narrow-win group.
Co-author of the study, Dashun Wang, an associate professor of management and organisations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, was surprised by the results. He told the New York Times, “When we first saw these results, we were like, ‘Oh, that can’t be right, this is counter to everything I’ve learned.’ We just tested everything we could think of, but every time we tested, the results come back the same.”
After controlling for various factors and running through different experiments, such as analysing both groups’ performance in the second five year window only, they arrived at the conclusion that the near-miss group outperformed the narrow-win group by 21 per cent, and did so with less overall funding.
While the researchers acknowledge that failures can hurt a career, they were able to show in their findings that it can also be a mark of success as early failure was likely to teach the scientists valuable lessons.
This supports the idea of supporting staff who fail, especially juniors, as it may eventually pay off in the future. As the researchers note, the celebration of a ‘fail-fast’ mindset is alive and well in Silicon Valley. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told Business Insider, “failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right.”
Does a culture of failure work?
The findings in this research paper are interesting, but it’s worth highlighting that they were looking at near failures – people who missed by a whisker. If people submitted catastrophically bad papers, they might not have such impressive results down the track.
But the essence of what the researchers are saying – that we can mine valuable lessons from our mistakes – is something employers should pay attention to. So how do you do that in a way that’s sustainable?
Silicon Valley employers are regularly held a pedestal for their progressive approach to failures, but there are many who are ready to call bull. In an article for Forbes, management consultant Rob Asghar calls the Silicon Valley’s ‘fail fast, fail often’ mantra nothing more than a bunch of hype.
He refers to an entrepreneur that he was speaking with who said the pressure to succeed paired with the high stakes of these tech companies, and the high pay packets of those working there, means failure sometimes isn’t an option.
Asghar highlights another ‘fail fast’ cynic, Mark Suster, who said, in response to those who claim they have no fear of testing the waters, “Tell that to the person who wrote you $50,000 of their hard earned money and entrusted you to try your best. Fail fast? How does your brother-in-law feel about that?”
It’s not just the unicorn companies that hoover up investor money only to go bust. Silicon Valley stalwarts have also been accused of having an unhealthy relationship with risk. Except it’s not investors, but the public that ends up paying for it.
Instead of embracing failure, Asghar said we should be cultivating resilience – embracing the ability to bounce back.
To do this, it’s important to analyse what kind of failures are occurring. At AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition this year, keynote speaker and senior partner at Innosight, Scott Anthony, broke failures down into three categories:
- Preventable failures – these you should punish, as it’s foreseeable and should have been stopped by appropriate training, he says.
- Complex failures – these aren’t foreseeable and those making the mistake should learn from them.
- Intelligent failure – these are the kind of failures you want. It’s about taking smart risks, that will lead to interesting results regardless of success.
So rather than conducting ‘fail fast’ exercises, we should think about failing more intelligently.
Another convention keynote speaker, Dom Price, a futurist at Atlassian, wrote about this concept in a blog post.“Can’t we do better than grease the wheels of the failure bandwagon?” he asks.
He thinks we shouldn’t celebrate failure – because it’s inherently uninspiring – but rather celebrate the wisdom won from failure.
“Some things go well, and you double down on them. Some things don’t, and you study why they didn’t and share those lessons with your peers and teammates,” he writes.
Price says we should reframe the celebration of failures. Workplaces should aim at an environment that encourages the testing of hypotheses, unpacking assumptions and consistency of feedback.
To do this, Price pulls three tips from the Atlassian playbook. Once the mistake/failure has been made:
- Write down all the lessons you can draw from it. Be honest (that’s important) and share them with your team.
- Conduct a “post-mortem” of the mistake. Price suggests using a health monitor approach to get a holistic understanding of the problem.
- Before taking on a new project run a “pre-mortem” to prepare for any potential issues that could arise.
We shouldn’t shy away from failing, but we should be conscious of how we’re talking about it in the workplace. If you’re encouraging a ‘fail fast’ attitude you might also be facilitating a culture of unacceptable risks. Failure isn’t wonderful, but its lessons can be. So be transparent about mistakes and encourage team wide dissection of the lessons, and pair conversations about failure with resilience.
Now, go forth and fail, well.
Want to hear more insights from future thinkers? You can register your interest in AHRI’s 2020 National Convention and Exhibition now!