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Make it Safe To Fail

How open are your people to taking risks?

Do they strive to keep the status quo, run from any exposure to failure, and continually blame others for mistakes . . . or do they try new things, embrace the learning from failure, and take ownership over their actions?

Of course, leaders want their people to take risks, but in my experience, I've often found leaders frustrated with their staff because of the lack of new and creative ideas. Perhaps part of this problem is you. Yup, that is right, it just might be you that holds your people back.

You see, if they are scared to take action, if they fear that they'll be fired if they really mess up, or if you continue to have a micromanaging stronghold on them, they may just retreat and keep doing things the way they have always been done before because that is the safest mode of operation.

What is interesting, at least according to management guru Peter Drucker, is that "People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes per year." So, people are going to make mistakes. Whether or not they feel safe doing so is up to you.

Here's a handful of benefits that risk-taking organizations see:

  1. Processes get improved. When people take risks they tend to improve the way things are done.

  2. Profitability increase. Who doesn't want their organization to be more profitable? Of course, we all do. One way to get there is to empower your people to take risks.

  3. More innovation. When your team feels safe to fail, they are more willing to try new things and think outside of the box.

  4. Greater competitiveness. If your team is constantly coming up with new ideas and improving processes, then you are not going to have to worry about your competition.

  5. Increased job satisfaction. Honestly, nobody enjoys a boring job. When safety is created and risks are encouraged, people get excited to experiment, they know that their thoughts and actions are valued, and they become happier about their jobs.

So, if making it safe to fail is so great, how can you create this type of environment? I believe that there are five powerful ways that leaders can create a risk-taking culture.

Stop Expecting Perfection

Let's be honest . . . when was the last time you tried something for the first time and got it perfectly right? Um, I'm going to guess - NEVER. Yea, we all mess up when trying new things. Just think of how many times you feel learning how to walk. So, it only makes sense that our people will not be perfect right out of the gates. We need to relax a little, and let them know that it is OK that they don't get it right the first, second, or maybe even third time. I know that is going to drive you nuts, but there really is no other way. People have to have the experience of failing in order to learn how to do things well. Just keep in mind that once upon a time someone had patience with you:)

Chalk The Field

Often people don't take risks because they don't know how. That is, they don't know what risks are OK to take and what risks should be avoided. They don't know where to start, who they may need to talk to, and what barriers might stand in their way. You can help them by providing the chalk lines on the field for them to play in. Share with them the sorts of mistakes that are OK to make and the sorts that probably should be avoided. Let them know when you are open to new ideas and when you are firm on your decisions. Show them how they can get started and let them know the resources that are around them in case they need help.

When I think about risks, I like to imagine a giant cruise ship. Google one of these and you'll see that the bottom hull of the ship is painted red. This is the water line. Ideally, when at full weight, the transition between from red to white is right where the water is. In the olden days, if a battleship got hit with a cannon above the water line, it caused damage but it wouldn't sink the ship. If the cannon hit below the water line, there was damage, and the ship was probably going to go down. Define where the water line is for your staff. Be OK with above the water line hits, and jump in when you see a mistake that might be below the water line.

Start Small, Fast, and Cheap

There once was a pottery professor that conducted an experiment. She told one class that their grades were completely dependent upon the quality of their pots. For another class, she explained that their grade would come from the quantity of pots they completed, not the quality. The first class took their time, were extremely meticulous, and had great-looking pots as they entered the kiln. Yet, due to the inexperience of the students, most of the pots exploded under the high heat and only a few received passing grades. The second class was quite different. Things were messy and ugly at first. Lots of pots were going in and exploding in the kiln. But, over time, this reduced. In fact, by the end of the semester, the second class had the highest number of completed pots AND they were of the highest quality. Let your team grow by taking many small, fast, and cheap risks.

Celebrate Failure

Yup, when someone fails, it would be good for you to not get mad, angry, and upset but rather to turn that frown upside down and celebrate what has occurred. Begin this by sharing with your team moments when you've failed. Then, ask them to share when they have failed and literally do a round of applause for them. Congratulate them and then process what can be learned from the failure. You can make talking about failures a regular part of a meeting, you can put up a "Failure Board" where staff can write down their failures, you can also create a mistake of the month club where you meet once a month simply to talk about the times that didn't go well. Bring lots of food and give prizes away. Make failure something to celebrate.

Reward Risk Taking

Taking this just one more step forward, when you see someone taking a risk, reward it. You don't have to wait till the failure. They might not fail. Take the time now to share your appreciation for someone breaking away from the way things have always been done. Make it a big deal. Sure, they might get a little embarrassed but you're trying to send a message to the whole team. After you've been rewarding for a period of time, start to shift where your expectations are. Get to a place where you expect people to think creatively and to take risks. If a team member is not taking risks, have a conversation with them and hold them accountable. Explain that everyone's ideas and actions are needed for you to succeed as a team.

Some of these ideas may feel natural and a few might be outside of your comfort zone for you. Either way, remember that leaders know the way and go the way. They take the first steps towards change, so it is your time to become comfortable with risk and failure and show your team that it is safe to fail!

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