Failing productively

I was in the Facebook offices in London recently. Very cool offices in a very nice location but what one of the things that struck me most was the signage on the walls.

I have to say that I absolutely love this.

It’s one thing to hear this at conferences (which sometimes seem to exist for the express purpose of making us aware of our own incompetence!) or from coworkers who have your back anyway. It’s another thing to have this as fundamental aspect of the culture corporate and just a million miles away from the lip service that so many companies pay to this idea. You know the sort of company, they maybe have a nice motivational picture of an eagle along with a pithy comment about attitude and altitude and think they are being daring. If you are lucky your direct boss embraces the idea that being able to fail is a good thing and if you are really lucky your boss’s boss does too but the whole company? Really?

So why this is such a big deal? The idea that you can actually try something, have it fail (or at least not be a raging success) and not be seen as a failure yourself frees people to do what needs to be done rather than do some safe and sanitised version of what they think everyone else thinks needs doing. It basically changes the success criteria for individuals from a binary “did it work?” to a spectrum of “are we closer to a useful solution?” Failing in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Failing because you did something stupid, like repeat a known mistake or not doing simple research, is a bad failure but failing because you were exploring the limits of what is possible is something completely different.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last few years at a place where this attitude was prevalent across my division and it makes a genuine and lasting difference on how people do their jobs. In fact I can’t imagine wanting to work at a place that does not support this attitude.

And “Fail Harder”? This advice that says that if you are going to do something, you go to the wall with it and wring every last lesson you can learn from it. Free yourself from self-limiting beliefs on what you are doing and try anything and everything.

What’s slightly maddening is this concept is not new. A quick dig around a you find quotes like these:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”― Thomas A. Edison

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

These are serious comments from world leaders in their fields on the underpinnings of success and if you want to point at something that hacks a company’s culture forcing it to acknowledge reality, this is it.

Addendum
Deciding to change your corporate culture is one thing but actually changing it is another. One of the best talks at the superb Velocity Conference in London this year was “Continuously Deploying Culture” by Mike Rembetsy and Patrick McDonnell from Etsy that covered how their company had moved their company culture. The video is here and it’s a must watch.

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