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Failing Forward

by Janelle Pellizzari ASEBP | March 15 2018

How many times have you come up with an idea or process but did not share it or bring it forward in fear of failing? Our brains are trained to associate failure with steps backward rather than forward. I think it's part of human nature to try our best to get things right on the first try. Furthermore, our culture seems to draw a lot of attention towards winners. We admire and praise the gold winning Olympian, the Grammy winning artist, the top goal scorer on the team. What we often don’t acknowledge is the sacrifice, adversity and mistakes that occurred to get there. Did you know that behind most success stories, there is a stumble, a setback or some radical change of direction? What if we were to embrace failure as a way to grow and set ourselves up for success? My belief is that embracing failure would allow us to think more positively and challenge ourselves to be better at work and in our personal lives.

How to Fail Well

The concept of failing forward was introduced to me at a community impact workshop that I recently attended. The facilitators shared examples on how organizations are implementing ‘failure reports’ as a way to encourage employees to learn and grow from mistakes to produce even better results. Rather than feeling bogged down because of the conditions we’ve placed on ourselves and the self-imposed meanings we’ve assigned to failure, it’s something that is supported and encouraged. The workshop was incredible and I couldn’t help but feel that the idea of failing forward would be so well translated into workplace culture.

How then, do we start to embrace failing forward within our workplaces? Where to begin? Here are some helpful ideas that have been shared with me:

  • Create a “Hall of Failure.” The idea behind this is simple: encourage staff to jot down a time when they failed and, next to it, include a lesson they learned from the failure. This is an opportunity to showcase failures, even using other epic failures from history, like this one. You may be surprised by the conversation this wall generates—not to mention the ideas it inspires and the trust that it builds among staff.
  • Encourage collaboration. The short story here is to discuss, not lecture. In order to start embracing and encouraging failure, demonstrate the importance of trying new things and welcome others to do the same thing. As an example, create a safe space where colleagues can share failures and invest in each other’s success by providing support, positive feedback and new ideas. Encouraging collaboration amongst staff and allowing opportunities to share ideas and discuss learnings from missed opportunities helps to build growth, cultivate relationships and positively shift the workplace culture.
  • Stay open to ideas and ask others outside of your team. Ideas don’t have to come from experts or decision-makers. Sometimes the greatest innovations and successes start from casual conversations—like in a coffee room or on your way out the door. Don’t be afraid to share an idea or start a conversation with people who are unfamiliar with the current process that is being used.
  • Make it real. The biggest myth about innovation is that it all starts with a bolt of lightning or sudden ‘perfect’ idea. Start discussing what small steps can be taken to get to the bigger picture. Find others that share your passion to move this journey forward and dig in together.

Failure is not always a good thing but it’s definitely a part of learning and growing. Plan for failure, learn from it and focus on the positive culture that results from this shift in perspective. If there is a recipe for success, failure might be one of the main ingredients!

Janelle Pellizzari

With a background in nutrition, a Master's degree in Health Studies and as a former ASEBP workplace wellness liaison, 'Neller' is committed to sharing all she knows about health promotion and workplace wellness. And while this is important, it is perhaps more important to know that Janelle is the reigning champion of the local leg wrestling league despite her crushing inability to throw a Frisbee.