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Why real agile leaders embrace failure

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Anthony Crain, Delivery Manager, Agile Transformation, cPrime

By now, most people recognize that adopting agile is a cultural change. Part of that is learning to fail fast.

Agile transformations ask companies to embrace failure, and even to reward it. But development teams in most organizations still have a fear of failure that's driven by the corporate culture. They have a history of managers and executives punishing failure—or even any talk about the possibility of failure.

When companies punish failure, they create a fear-of-failure environment. I've seen this firsthand in my consulting engagements. These companies even tout slogans such as "Right the first time in everything we do" and "Failure is not an option." But those sentiments run contrary to lean and agile principles of fast experiments, set-based approaches, and continuous exploration.

More importantly, when people are afraid to share their failures, they hide them. If leadership is unaware of failure, there is zero hope of ever improving the business because you can't fix what you can't see.

Here's why you should learn to embrace failure.

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The worst thing you can do is to punish failure. In fact, those who communicate their failures to leadership should be publicly rewarded, to encourage every employee to report their failures as well. Once you start finding the real failures, you can identify new patterns and leverage new ideas to improve how you operate.

Some companies have done exactly this by holding a "biggest failure" award once per year for the sole purpose of changing the culture. The learning that follows is just the gravy on top of the culture change. In other words, these companies aren’t just benefiting from learning; they are benefiting from having a culture that admits failure.

Fear of the word 'failure' runs deep

Many companies, however, are so far from the culture of rewarding failure that when they adopt agile and hear "fail fast," they immediately rebrand it to "learn fast." They are culturally so deeply afraid of failure, they can't even say the word "fail" in "fail fast" without the fear creeping into their bellies and behind their eyes.

When a company rebrands “fail fast” to “learn fast,” it unwittingly delivers a serious blow to its culture change. It is communicating that it is still afraid of failure. And leadership leads the culture to stay right where it is: afraid of failure.

Leaders are the ones who take the risk first. Not people with the "title" of leader. They are often risk-adverse. But genuine leaders are the ones who see a scary moment and dive right in—and are then followed by others who see the wisdom of their jump.

If you believe this idea, then if you want to change the culture of your company, the expeditious path is for the leaders to make the change first, and do so as visibly as possible. In this case, leaders must become vulnerable first.

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Leaders must allow vulnerability

When leaders become vulnerable, they earn the trust of those they lead. Leaders must begin to admit failure if they want their culture to make this critical change. And at the very least, they should not shy away from the word “fail” by substituting “learn.”

We hope that when we fail fast, we might learn fast. That works if it is in your control. Hand in fire burns. No more hand in fire may be in your control. But if the organization keeps hiding fires inside of cookie jars, it may be the organization that needs to learn, and organizations rarely learn fast. Yet we still want to fail fast, to get enough evidence to make the organizational learning happen faster than if we failed slow. But it will hardly learn fast.

Failure is the goal

When you say, "Learn fast," you are saying the word "failure" is still taboo. You are saying that failure isn't the goal. But if you really want transparency, if you really want to improve your business, then embracing failure is the goal. Even if learning is slow.

So, leaders, I challenge you: Stop avoiding the word “failure.” Embrace the phrase “fail fast.” And be a culture change leader.