Spend any time with musicians, like we do, and you are quickly in awe of their skill, talent, and work ethic. From the concert pianist playing a concerto from memory, to the percussion player who waits the entire symphony to hit the one significant note, precisely at the right time you cannot come away from any performance without a sense of awe at the proficiency of the musicians.
But to judge a musician based on a single performance would be like judging the size of an iceberg only on what you can see above the waterline. Behind the excellence are hours and hours of practice, and a word that we avoid like the plague in business, failure.
Failure is a critical part of learning and moving forward. We wouldn’t expect musicians to play a new piece perfectly first time any more than we’d expect a first time entrepreneur’s first idea to be a raging success. Practice for the musician makes the process of making mistakes that build towards success possible, whether it’s the amateur musician practicing so they get it right, or the professional musician practicing so they don’t get it wrong.
So what could be the business practices, that make failure both safe and the building blocks of success?
1. Face up to the fact that failure happens
When there’s a lot at stake, it’s hard to allow failure, let alone admit it. But when failure is both evident and unavoidable, embracing it can be the key to success. When Alan Mulally took on the leadership of Ford Motor Company in 2006 he asked managers to colour-code their progress reports. Those marked green were good, those marked red were in trouble. At the start the majority of reports were marked green, even though the company had lost billions of dollars in the previous year. Admitting to failure wasn’t part of the culture, but it was only after he got his managers to admit that everything wasn’t going so well, that the company was failing in many respects, that he was able to turn it round. Whatever your size, facing up to failure could be your saving grace.
2. Learn the difference between failing well and failing badly
Of course not all failure is good failure. Risky decisions with catastrophic consequences are never going to be graciously chalked up to ‘learning from experience’, but it is possible to fail well. Failing is a risk, that needs two clearly defined boundaries to be made safe: How much risk can your business tolerate? and what kind of failures are acceptable? When these two things are clear you create a culture where there is clear space to try new things without fear of the risk being too great to recover from.
3. Make failure part of the learning and growth process
No one wants to be credited with the downfall of an entire organisation through one careless mistake. But organisations which cultivate the freedom to fail in small ways often, will avoid huge one-off failures with disastrous results. Comedians, for example, try their new material in small venues first, where they can work out what’s good and what’s not without the exposure of experimenting in front of stadium sized audiences. The culture of an orchestra too, where musicians are expected to practice individually and together, allows hundreds of tiny errors to be corrected before the final piece is performed in public.
The pursuit of excellence is one of trial and error. We all want to succeed. Maybe if we allowed ourselves to fail more we’d be more successful.