Plan to fail today

If you don't occasionally experience failure, you're not trying hard enough. That's what you might call 'contrary' advice; it's certainly not what they taught us at school.

If you don't occasionally experience failure, you're not trying hard enough. That's what you might call "contrary" advice; it's certainly not what they taught us at school. Mistakes and failure generated scrawling red marks on your homework, and too many errors could keep you from getting to the next class.

In the real world, the opposite is true. Even though failure isn't perceived by many as something to strive for, it's the only way we advance.

Here's a real life, silly and simple, example. I'm an avid reader. When I'm at the airport bookstand, the chances are very good that I've read everything by my favourite authors on the shelves in front of me. Yet, if I'm going to be sitting in a plane for the next five hours, I must have something to read. What do I do? I choose two numbers at random, say five and seven, and then I count off ... five columns to the right, seven books down, and I buy that book ... if I haven't read it already.

Using this method, I've bought a lot of awful books (that is, failure) and I've found some great authors I'd never heard of before (success), who I would not have read unless I was willing to risk a few dollars on a random choice.

The core idea in my peculiar book hunting strategy is the notion that it is okay to risk some small failure if the goal is to achieve greater success; in this case, finding a new author. To place this in a business context, think back to the last time you were in a meeting, at the point where the chairperson needs to assign new duties. When you raised your hand to accept a task, did you take the one you could handle without any trouble, or one which would stretch your talents?

Most people, myself included most of the time, assume responsibility only for those tasks we know we're qualified. Yet the opportunity for growth doesn't reside in the shallow end of the pool. If we want to grow, then seizing the task at the deep end, the one we know nothing about, is where we'll find all the fun, and of course, all the risk.

"We can't afford failure" is the excuse offered by many managers, as they hand out tasks only to those capable of delivering results without risk. Each time they do, they choose to lose an opportunity to grow their staff.

"But we can't afford constant failure on must-do operational tasks!" is the response once again ... and to a limited degree, it's a good response. Giving every must-do task to the unqualified is the path to chaos, not progress. On the other hand, never stretching staff abilities leads to stagnation.

The real problem with a no-risk approach to all must-do tasks is that our cautious pattern of behaviour can become engrained, resulting in a culture of risk avoidance.

With must-do tasks, this isn't such a bad strategy, but what about those tasks which can come into existence only when we deliberately seek out new, and usually risky, ways of doing things? A culture of risk avoidance prevents us from even thinking about the new, the unfamiliar and out-of-the-ordinary ways of achieving our goals. It leads to a "leave well enough alone" and "if it ain't broke don't fix it" mentality, which serves only a single purpose: to ensure that what we did yesterday, is exactly what we do tomorrow and next week.

The reality is, we can not practise innovation without increasing our risk of failure, and the more innovative the idea, the greater the risk. Sadly, most people will reject even the tiny risk associated with randomly selecting a new book to read, never mind the much larger risks involved in finding new solutions to old problems.

De Jager is a management consultant. Email him or contact him via his website.

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