By Ann Gray
We have heard the quote “failure creates learning opportunities”. What we don’t talk about enough, is the process involved.
Astro Teller, Laboratory Director at Google X, gave a TED Talk on the importance of failure in Google X’s approach to pioneering new projects. He talks about the courage it takes to kill a project after so many resources has been contributed. He believes his team does more to further innovation by ending projects and accepting failure. This puts more focus on recognizing the “point at which you know you can stop now”, which allows for course correction.
He says, learning is when we always wait until we realized we failed. But, chasing failure allows for risk taking and shameless optimism. They actually reward the quitting team with a bonus and a vacation.
In reflection, I realized when we avoid failure, shame is often masked as determination. The process becomes the back burner to just finishing.
So, how do we make this shift as business leaders?
It doesn’t mean to lead with doubt or encourage doubt. However, doubt can shine light and encourage a pattern of thinking about alternatives. As Astro says, “Enthusiastic skepticism is not the enemy of boundless optimism. They are partners”.
As a consultant, I often witness leadership based on a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset. This happens when we perpetually praise the end result without focusing on the process. There is rarely any acknowledgement of the strategy, or the struggle, in the process. This stunts growth – in individuals and ultimately in organizations.
As leaders, it is challenging to create this shift, but we can reframe our approach to processes. We can collaborate more and reshape what team members think about their own potential.
Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, shared a powerful and metaphoric example in an interview. She says that coding is all about the end result because one keystroke can ruin the entire project. However, if a student is sitting there with a blank screen, the instructor would assume no work has been done. If the instructor does not hit the “undo” button a few times, they will never see all of the work that led to the blank screen.
This scenario demonstrates the opportunity to push people beyond failure – but first, the process must be acknowledged. Most importantly, when people are not good at something, they quit.
This shaped the concept of Girls Who Code. Reshma feels strongly about how this effects women in the workplace, especially in technology. She speaks a lot about the way girls are raised verses boys. Boys take more risks and are expected to “bump their heads”.
In an interview, Reshma states: “Boys, as babies, start late at most things…so how do they end up running the world? They’re taught to be tough and habituated to take risks. We raise our boys to be brave and our girls to be perfect”.
Reshma is right. Most people have developed either a fixed mindset or growth mindset along the way.
As leaders, our mindset toward the process is where ‘failure as an option’ is either encouraged or blocked.
Remember some math teachers required you to “show your work” when solving problems on the test? By doing so, you might receive some points – even if the final answer was wrong. Remember getting the test back and seeing so many red marks that it looked like your paper was murdered? We hated it then. Now, most people in the workplace are CRAVING this type of feedback and acknowledgement. Instead, we focus on end results, profits, losses, and quick answers.
We have been shown this process-focused approach at some points in life. We now have to adopt this approach into the workplace more – to push innovation forward.
We could learn from Google X’s approach to Chasing Failure.
Ann Gray is the Managing Partner, Business Strategist at EWF International. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org