If you’re at least a little interested in human creativity and the invention process, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Fail fast to learn faster, failure is necessary to innovate, we must fail to succeed, blah blah blah. The truth is, the large majority of us suffer from failure hypocrisy.
Let me show you what I mean. Years ago I had the pleasure of hosting a digital webcast mini-conference with New York Times best-selling author Dan Pink. The night of the event, about 70 people slid a chair up to a big screen and webcam to listen to Pink discuss the research that went into his book Drive. We asked questions and he responded. Pink’s son was even in the background, dancing around with a giant cardboard cut-out of the book. It was hilarious, informative, and a fun conversational presentation.
Coming off this clearly successful event, I set out to do it all again. This time I got a swanky location, and tons of free food from companies wanting to be associated with the event. The guest was Matthew E. May, a best-selling author and superstar design-thinking guy famous for his work with Toyota.
I had 80–100 people confirm they would come, and I knew I was on to something big. Then the day came. Ten minutes past our start time, I had only three people in the audience. Yes, three. As in the number of lights on a traffic signal, and the number of inches tall I felt.
I was so humiliated that I tilted the webcam away from the empty seats so Matt couldn’t see the awful turnout. (I only recently told him about this. He took it well, I think.) By the time the mini-conference was over, we had around five total attendees. It was, by any definition, a failure.
Given how necessary and valuable failure can be, you’d think I would have embraced it as a chance to learn. But, of course, I didn’t. Praising it in the abstract is one thing, but it’s very different when you are the victim. So I did what any coward would do. I erased all references to the event on the web. When people said, “Sorry I couldn’t make it, how’d it go?” I just told them Matt was awesome (which was true) to hide my anger and frustration. My failure hypocrisy took root as I feared any public knowledge of the disaster would ruin future projects I worked on.
It took six months, but I finally fessed up to a bunch of friends. Their feedback was hard to hear but surprisingly helpful. I realized that the first event went off well because there was a lot of buy-in from my community. The second event had no buy-in because I’d tried to organize it all myself.
This realization led to us creating the Iowa Creativity Summit. Matt came back as our keynote speaker, and he packed the house, creating an attendance record that still stands to this day.
Troubled at my failure hypocrisy and inability to embrace and learn from it, I decided to make that a center point on a new podcast. I asked all my guests to share their most epic failure to date, how they learned from it, and how they overcame it to achieve their success. But as I asked this question to more and more people, each one a successful innovator, I discovered failure hypocrisy was rampant.
Every leader knows failure is important and necessary to succeed; every leader is comfortable citing epic examples from other people — like James Dyson’s thousands of failed designs, but almost no one will openly discuss their own failures, and in many cases, they act as if they can’t recall any at all.
If I’m successful at getting a prospective guest to recount a failed experience, they typically frame it as being the result of something beyond their control. Only a few have admitted they did something stupid and learned from it. (They make the cut onto the show.) Keep in mind, these are successful people I’m asking — people who shouldn’t fear what other people think.
I get it. Leaders don’t want to feel vulnerable. They want to minimize their own failures. Doing so might seem harmless, but it’s vitally important for leaders not only to accept failure with lip service but also to cop to their own specific failures. Not doing so can cause four very real problems.
If you can’t admit failure, you cannot connect with your team. While it’s true that employees won’t want to discuss their own failures, they are more likely to connect with leaders who do. Will Burns of Ideasicle told me about a time when he was promoted into a role he didn’t know how to do. He was afraid to admit the truth, and he ended up being asked to leave that part of the business. Later, he discovered that leaders only look weak when they act like they know it all. After all, a leader who has never failed at anything is either a human anomaly or a liar. Even if the specific failure isn’t applicable to staff, simply admitting it helps them connect.
If you can’t admit failure, you won’t learn from it. Failure is only positive when you learn something important from it and then make the necessary adjustments. If you don’t do this, you cannot learn from outside perspectives and you’re more likely to stay in denial. When I fessed up about my awful five-person event catastrophe, I was shocked to learn the experiences others had, and also aspects of the event I was totally blind to.
How to fix failure hypocrisy
If you can’t admit failure and confront your own failure hypocrisy you won’t tolerate it from others. As much as leaders will openly say that failure must happen for innovation to be present, many will get upset at staff who fail or struggle. I’ve seen it with clients. (Ex-clients.) They know enough about failure not to punish it, of course, but their attitude sent a loud, clear message that they weren’t happy — and that attitude shut up their staff, closed down experimentation, and obliterated creativity.
If you can’t admit failure, you’ll find your own tough to handle. This is an easy one to skip over, but it is so important. Forgetting about your failures makes moving on so much harder when your next failure comes (and you know it will). When I run into an issue, I make a point to think back to all the failures in my life. After realizing that failure is par for the course, I find it easier to move forward and learn from the catastrophe.
Our failure hypocrisy is hurting our teams and our companies. If you’re a leader, it’s time for you to open up about failure. Yes, it will be embarrassing at first, but you will learn more and watch your team — and you — grow stronger. Act now. Don’t fail at failure.
I originally wrote this piece for the Harvard Business Review. You can read it here.
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