Reframing failure can move organizations forward: Keynote

When a mistake is made in an organization, how does leadership respond to it? Do they lay blame and go as far as firing people or do they encouraging learning from mistakes?
This is the question Ashley Good, CEO of Fail Forward, asked a room of 600 delegates at the CSSE’s professional development conference in Ottawa. She says it’s important to reframe failure so it is not looked down upon, but rather seen as a learning opportunity.

“What if, instead of pointing fingers, we simply asked ourselves ‘What did I learn?’ And every time colleagues or peers failed, we went up to them with appreciation and curiosity and said ‘What did you learn?’” said Good.

Properly handling failure is becoming an increasingly essential skill in today’s day and age as the pace of change of the world has surpassed our capacity to learn, she said. Good offered some examples of how this is relevant to a safety professionals, including: increasing economic uncertainty means it’s harder and harder to convince senior decision makers to invest in safety; there is even more pressure for safety departments to do more with less; new standards, legislation, codes and regulations are constantly coming out that require new policies; and there might be 100 policies in place already but safety professionals are constantly working and adaption techniques to communicate those to front line staff.

“We are increasingly bumping up against problems that we simply fo not have the knowledge that we need to solve them.”

This means organizations — and individuals themselves — need to leave room for failure when they are trying to find solutions. This is easier said than done because initiatives and programs are designed with the expectation that they will succeed on the first try, said Good.

“We get really upset and frustrated when they don’t.”

Many companies operate under the “Failure is not an option” mantra. While this works with big operational goals, it is not effective in ground level tactics where failure should always be an option, said Good.

“We have to be willing to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. And in that, they have to acknowledge that achieving those big operational goals is built on the back of experimenting, learning and adapting and muddling our way to something that works.”

Good offered five tips for looking at failure in a new light:
•Redefine failure as a teachable moment.
•Respond with what did I learn?
•Acknowledge there is success and failure in everything.
•Invest in maximizing learning.

“Flipping failure on its head this way, it puts the onus on us in times of failure not to find somebody to blame but instead it forces us to hold ourselves responsible for learning absolutely everything we can in times of failure,” Good said.

Photo: Ashley Good (Credit: Erin Petruska)