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April 20, 2017

To Fail is Noble

Alan Ibbotson- Changeologist. Founder of The Trampoline Group. Executive Coach. Keynote Speaker on Change, Leadership & EI

In my work with executive and leadership teams over the years, I have found that it’s not uncommon for them to be able to agree on bold strategies and ambitious goals fairly quickly.

But words are cheap.

Those same teams can then find themselves in the obvious conflict of hedging towards a series of mediocre decisions, largely because they forgot to consider that the real execution of that bold strategy requires an inherent bravery and willingness to fail – TOGETHER.

One of the hallmarks of a great leadership team is that individual members are able to disagree, but still commit to a course of action when there is a compelling, if imperfect business reason to do so. Such teams rely on trust and goodwill towards each other. They don’t take disagreement personally and are able to engage in rigorous, colorful debate without damaging their relationships because the collective sense of responsibility to be in the conversation carries infinitely more weight than the individual desires to win that conversation.

In my experience, such leadership teams are generally also the ones that deal the most effectively with failure, partly because they’ve spent time agreeing what NOBLE FAILURE looks like. Such an agreement, in the context of trust between team members also puts an immediate stop to finger pointing and blame, the death knell not just of innovation, but in many cases, of leaderships teams and their organizations too. You only have to look at the startup failure rate to see this.

So what is noble failure? Charles Schwab have this concept firmly embedded in their culture and you can read about it here. But in the world of AGILE and “failing fast”, it’s not always possible to have a fully baked contingency plan or even a fully fledged strategy. Sometimes, you really do just have to trust your gut and take a punt. And in those cases, the only criteria you can rely on is that which keeps you together should it fail.

So here’s our criteria for assessing Noble Failure, developed by working with lots of clients on their missions, strategies and plans:

-It was entirely in line with our mission and our values as a company.
-We interrogated it sufficiently to know what our options were and picked wisely.
-A majority agreed it was worth a shot, for all the right (documented) reasons.
-We learned from it, in tangible ways and will apply those lessons going forward.
-We praised the effort and ensured our people did not feel deterred from pursuing ambitious goals in the future.
-This is easy to read and easy to write, but it takes a strong, trusting team to avoid the blame game and pull this off!

What have you learned about dealing with failure in your organizations?