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In many organisations the ‘F’ word, failure, is not tolerated. But failure is an inevitable part of innovation, as it comes naturally to anything with an element of uncertainty to it.

The idea of risk-taking and creating a safe-to-fail workplace culture is not a new one, however, it’s not an easy nut to crack. Over the last few months I’ve been working with a number of organisations that have a strong desire to adopt this mindset, but that are struggling to embed this behaviour. Not only are these organisations large corporates, but they have the additional challenge of being in highly regulated and safety-focussed industries. This raises the question of how do you begin embedding a safe-to-fail culture in an organisation when the stakes are so high (when failure can result in a breach of regulation, or worse, a severe workplace injury)?

After talking to a number of senior leaders it was clear where we needed to start – we needed to formally define what failure means for the organisation. More specifically, we needed to define what kind of risks leaders wanted employees to take and what was classified as a ‘bad failure’ versus a ‘good failure’.

At Inventium, we define bad failures as those that are expensive, time consuming and careless. This type of failure is also characterised by a lack of learnings gained. For example, a bad risk and hence a bad failure would be taking an idea straight from conception to implementation without testing it, or an employee ignoring safety standards in order to perform a task faster.

On the other hand, we define good failures as those that are quick, cheap and where learnings have been proactively (not retrospectively) gained. For example, experimenting (using Lean Startup Methodology) with a new product only to find that customers don’t value it as much as anticipated, or an employee failing to complete their daily tasks and identifying that this small delay is causing large bottlenecks further down the line.

So to start embedding a safe-to-fail and learning-oriented culture in your organisation:

  1. First, define what good and bad risk-taking and failure means for your organisation. Feel free to steal our definitions with pride!
  2. Second, communicate these definitions out to the entire organisation and ensure that all employees understand what kind of behaviours are being encouraged.
  3. Third, begin talking about the good failures that have or are occurring around the organisation (see here for some great examples of how others have started this conversation). Make it safe for people to openly discuss what hasn’t worked and their learnings gained without fear of being blamed.