The Value of Failing


By Morgan Kemick, CHRP

One of the most recognized quotes in Canadian sport history is from Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 per cent of the shots you dont take.”

How does your company respond when you miss a shot? Do they never let you forget it—even though when you came to your boss for direction you didn’t receive any? Or do they say, “It’s alright” and suggest that you go stick side next time?

We have all been in the situation where we have two solutions to a problem and a decision has to be made. You have weighed all of the pros and cons, thought carefully about the short and long-term implications, measured the ROI on both options, and made an educated decision.

Shortly thereafter, you realize it’s the wrong choice. The entire rollout plan is disintegrating and everything that could go wrong is. You are lying awake at night worried about your morning meeting with your superior to discuss the issue.

You arrive at work ready for the worst. Your boss calls you in. Your palms are sweaty and she motions towards the chair you are to sit in.

She starts to explain the costs associated with your failed decision. Then, to your surprise, she begins to tell you a story about the worst decision she’s made in her career and how a possible million-dollar gain turned into a million-dollar failure. With a smile, she then asks what your next steps will be to rectify the problem and remedy the poor decision you made.

Like any smart-minded HR professional, you have already created a strategy ready to be implemented immediately. You explain the resolution and thank her for the support.

As the above example shows, some organizations value the right to fail as part of their culture. However, on the other end of the spectrum there are companies who nail you to the wall if you make a mistake.

I believe there is a direct correlation between valuing the right to fail and how innovative, entrepreneurial and creative an organization can be. Steve Jobs did not create the computer that would change the world on his first try. NASA had plenty of failed attempts before reaching the moon. In Thomas Edison’s own words, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work.”

If you want to design a culture that allows employees to experience failure, there are a number of areas that need to be considered. The first is the leadership structure and style. A true open door policy and coaching or mentoring mantras are necessary. By providing decision-making support to your workforce, you inevitably mitigate the risk of frustration or anger should the decision they make be the wrong one.

The next, if not the most important aspect, is learning from the mistake. Take the time to sit with the employee and evaluate what went wrong. In hindsight, what would they do differently? As a manager, did you push the employee too far outside their comfort zone? Did you provide the employee with the necessary training and education to properly complete the task?

In an organization that does value the right to fail, recognition between failing once and consistently allowing an employee to make the same mistake two, three or even four times, is key. This is where performance reviews and timely feedback is essential.

Now I turn the question to you. What culture and environment suits your personal style as an HR professional? And furthermore, what kind of culture matches the values of your organization?

Morgan Kemick, CHRP is human resources manager with Select Wines and Spirit.

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