Paul Tholen: Failure - a route to success

PUBLISHED: 09:56 05 March 2012

Business columnist byline picture of Paul Tholen

Business columnist byline picture of Paul Tholen

Archant Norfolk Photographic / James Bass © 2011

What happens in your business when somebody makes a mistake? Are they reprimanded by their boss? Laughed at or shunned by their colleagues? Or are they congratulated and recognised for their contribution to the organisation?

What? Congratulated?

Why should anyone be rewarded for failing?

Well, there are several reasons, but only in businesses that are truly committed to getting the most from their people, and who seek constant improvement in the way they do things.

I’m not talking here about truly stupid or dangerous mistakes, or things that are ethically or legally wrong. I don’t include someone who flagrantly ignores sound company policies, procedures or rules.

No, I’m referring more to people who dare to try something different, something a bit ‘off the wall’, something slightly innovative – but something that doesn’t quite work. One reason employees are sometimes chastised for their mistakes is because they have behaved in a way that’s simply ‘not done like that here’. And when people are rapped on the knuckles often enough for such behaviour, they’ll usually shy away from trying it again – even if it was a well-intentioned attempt to make progress or to develop a new, better way of working. Thus, a culture of continuous improvement and innovation can be stifled or even extinguished before it has a chance to grow.

I was amused a few years ago to read an article about attempts by a manager at the BMW factory in Regensburg, Germany, to encourage employees to take sensible risks in the search for innovation by ‘rewarding legitimate errors that occurred with the best of intentions.’ Amused because I’ve been encouraging clients to celebrate well-tried failures for 15 years or more, after having been impressed by management guru Tom Peters’ reflection on this very idea in his book, ‘Thriving on Chaos’. He argued that one should ‘support failures by actively and publicly rewarding mistakes – failed efforts that were well thought out, executed with alacrity, quickly adjusted and thoroughly learned from.’

How good are you at celebrating things in your business? Do you regularly and publicly celebrate successes with your team? In my experience, too many businesses are not very good at doing even that, let alone applauding the well-tried failure. I’ve written before about the benefits of a fully engaged workforce – improved productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and staff retention. One of the best ways to make your people feel truly engaged is to regularly recognise their achievements, sometimes privately, sometimes publicly. What is nicer than to receive a note from the boss saying ‘well done and thanks’? Whole teams can feel more a part of the business by hearing public praise for something they’ve done well.

And, if, as an organisation, you’re confident and open-minded enough, you might try celebrating and even rewarding a few ‘heroic failures’ and see just how your people respond. My guess is that they will begin to feel more valued as individuals, more appreciated as a team. They could also experience a sense of liberation from the constraints of a risk-averse culture that discourages creative thinking and courageous behaviour.

When employees don’t feel afraid of trying something new or a bit different, when they know that failure is not punishable, when they are encouraged to think new thoughts – they can achieve remarkable things.

Paul Tholen is Managing Director of Visiontheme Business Mentoring.

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