Learning to Fail

“Fail fast

Fail well”

“Fail fast, fail well” is a well used mantra for continuous improvement practices. However we have discovered that people and teams do not know “how” to fail! This makes it hard for them to fail well. Traditionally failure is seen as a bad thing, something to avoid and or deny, and is seen as a punishable offense, we need to change that perception and realise that failure IS an option. Now we want to help teams learn how to fail, and how to fail successfully.

In an earlier post (Learning to THRIVE) I mentioned Chris Avery’s Responsibility Process, and that made me think about people who intend to take responsibility. That lead me to thinking about people and teams who “intend” to fail. I’m not talking about setting ourselves up for failure, or deliberately doing the wrong thing, but rather I’m thinking about acknowledging that we don’t get everything right the first time, and having the maturity to know that, so that when something fails, we are prepared for it.

The Keys to Responsibility™, i.e., to unlocking and mastering responsibility, through daily practice are:

  1. INTENTION – Intending to respond from Responsibility when things go wrong.
  2. AWARENESS – Catching yourself in the mental states of Denial, Lay Blame, Justify, Shame, Obligation, and Quit.
  3. CONFRONT – Facing yourself to see what is true that you can learn, correct, or improve.

This awareness that things will fail helps us to understand and be prepared for failure. If we are not prepared, then when things do go wrong we can find themselves being defensive or even rejecting the evidence of failure out of fear. The defensiveness can often turn into offensiveness where we take great umbrage at any failures being pointed out, to the extent that others will hesitate to point out failures. This can be the result of us not being used to failure being “ok”, acceptable, and expected, or it being part of the reward system to not fail.

Carol Dweck has spent a lot of time understand the fixed versus growth mindset, and often times we who are not happy to fail find ourselves demonstrating “fixed mindset” behaviours. The good news is that we can learn how to have a “Growth” mindset to support our ability to deal with failure, both emotionally and from an improvement perspective.



One way to deal with the challenges when feeling defensive if faced with failure is to teach yourself to actually agree with any criticisms. If you can just say “wow, yes, I did do that wrong, thanks for pointing it out”, you will remove the emotion attached the failure, thus the fear and defensiveness as well. This then helps us to focus on how to learn from the failure, rather than hide from it. This is hard though, we all respond to failure with personal disappointment and sometimes public embarrassment.

Failure walls are a great way to deal with the public side of failure. They are simply walls in the work environment where we have the opportunity to post examples of things that have gone wrong, coupled with things we have learned and what we have changed as a result of the failure. This is an awesome cultural step since it removes the defensiveness associated with failure and thus the need to hide it. Once that happens we can talk openly about how we failed and why we failed.

Being able to talk openly about failure is one of the most powerful tools to defeat any “blame culture” that may exist inside a team or an organisation. The blame game is incredibly toxic and can lead to terribly destructive behaviours. Moving away from this sort of approach for dealing with failures is a huge step forward for any organisation. Full recognition that generally the focus of blame on an individual is the “easy” way to address failure and is actually not going to stop the failure from re-occurring. Having the commitment to doing a thorough root cause analysis of the failure situation often allows us to realise that the cause of the failure was in the process, structure or tools being used, rather than the individual or team executing the activity that lead to the failure. Being brave enough as an organisation is vital to be able to continue to learn and adjust and grow.


Bottom line…for teams, we need to know that we will fail and that even though we don’t intend to fail, we need to be aware we will and confront it head on. We need to take a non-defensive stance to failure, be open and honest about it. Talking publicly about failure removes the blame game approach and allows the failure to be examined for it’s root causes.

Learning to fail is a really important team skill!


(Coming soon – Failure Support Structures!)




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