Failure is impossible

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Susan B. Anthony spoke those words in 1902 in reference to the women’s suffrage movement and she was right.   Today, those words are often used by business leaders to motivate their teams to work tirelessly in pursuit of a workplace outcome that will drive success for the organization.

Perhaps, it is time to reconsider the whole notion of “failure is impossible” by beginning to think differently about failure. I’ve been suggesting to my clients that we look at failure based on some work done by Amy Edmonson at Harvard. Edmonson points out that by developing a learning attitude with failure rather than a blaming mentality, these mistakes wind up becoming an essential aspect to any workplace roadmap. Thomas Edison, when pressed about his failure to produce a working light bulb reportedly replied that “he hadn’t failed to make a light bulb but had discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb.”

Edmonson outlines 3 broad ways to think about failure that I’ve shared and used with my clients, and I think you will find helpful them with your team:

  1. Blameworthy failures: Some failures do deserve to be attributed to a preventable error. An employee may decide to chart their own path diverging from a well-established procedure leading to failure. Other times, someone may lack the knowledge or skills to do the job properly. In one study, business leaders reported that only 2-5% or most failures fall into this category but over 70% of failures are considered blameworthy
  2. Understandable: These kinds of failures usually are related to a process issue. Either the procedures are not fully or adequately delineated or some kind of new novel situation leads to a breakdown. In most workplaces, the level of complexity (consider a hospital ER or a startup technology company) might lead one to being grateful that anything gets done properly
  3. Praiseworthy: We tend to think of innovation as the place where failure is more acceptable. Whether it’s Edison’s light bulb or Musk’s Teslas, failure in these circumstances is expected. In every workplace, people come up with novel ideas and solutions to their issues every day. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t work, but the trial-and-error process is essential for business success and is, in fact, laudable.

Susan B. Anthony began her quest for women’s suffrage 70 years before it became a reality and there were many failures along the way, all of which she and her fellow activists used to learn and use to help reach their goal. While her proclamation inspired her followers for that final push, we all can recognize that failure is possible, expected, and perhaps even desired. Finding a way to forge a new relationship to our own failures may very well help us all to take a deep breath and continue our journey to success.

Resilient Mindfulness

Don’t forget to check out my new audio Resilient Mindfulness session available now. This series, which I’ll be adding to every month, is geared to help each of us perform better and be happier at work and at home. These sessions are about 10-12 minutes long, so you can listen to them before you start your day or when you need a quick break. Topics include:

  • Working with Clarity
  • Building Better Relationships at Work
  • Getting Your Day Off to a Great Start
  • Strengthening Your Empathy Muscle
  • Managing Negative Emotions

Right now, I am offering this with an Introductory Price of $19.95 which will provide your lifetime access to these and any additional ones that I add to the Series.

Once I add another 5 to the program, the price will go up, so head on over and check out my website for more Information!

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