Safe Failure

July 29, 2021
Daniel Waycik

Create opportunities for safe failure in your workplace

Laying blame

A colleague of mine regularly shares a philosophy of theirs on responding to situations where a team member fails at a task. The logic is simple. When you are responsible for someone who fails in a task – no matter how critical – it can only be due to one of four things:

1. The instructions weren’t clear – they don’t know what is expected of them.

2. They weren’t trained to do the task and/or are hesitant to share the problem.

3. They lack the skill needed to be successful.

4. They just didn’t want to do it.

If this is correct, that means as leaders, three out of four causes for failure fall on us. Seeing the workplace through this lens can drastically affect the way an operation is built.

Accepting the consequences

I’m sure most of us have heard a story from a wise leader, about an employee who made a critical and costly mistake. The employee was given another chance as they have gained significant experience. The prevailing wisdom being that the experience is so significant for the individual that they’re much more likely not to repeat the mistake.

This – of course – is not a complete operational model. One can only have so many critical errors before keeping somebody who is considered a liability on board. That being said, there is some truth to the idea that by experiencing failure at a specific task, an individual will have a very personal understanding of the potential consequences.

If you really want to go down a rabbit hole, it would be interesting to do a quick Google search about how modern gamification is being used as an educational tool. In short, the capability of gamification to simulate different spaces and situations allows people to try things with much less preparation and learn more quickly from the mistakes.

Maximizing on failure

I tend to think about failure as a currency. I no longer use failure as a safety net or a trigger to react. Instead, I look at failure as something to be sought out, mined, or invested in. Like a breaker in your electrical panel, failure can be used to safely prevent larger catastrophic damage. It also allows you to resolve the issue and try again.

Make opportunities for safe failure.

Safe Failure Environment

Give team members tasks with clear objectives and outcomes. This is essential to help develop an awareness of when failure can occur. Once there is a clear direction and objective, it will be clearer when the trajectory starts to wane or the results were not what was needed.

Normalize failure as part of the job. Make it safe and acceptable to share openly when mistakes are made. This way, it is more comfortable for team members to do so.

Set a higher standard. This is not about having no standards and letting failure indicate where improvement is needed. Setting a high standard will mean many more checks and balances involved in the process, which provides early indicators of failure. This is much better than having something completed and fully implemented with critical failures waiting to happen.

Training practices that focus on preparing the individual for each task vs memorizing all the possible outcomes. If there is a structure and planned tasks through a set process of knowing how to identify the tools, equipment or methods needed; then outcomes and practices will start to be more consistent, regardless of the experience of the individual.

Use a common knowledge repository or reference materials so that lessons, errors or omissions in documentation can be quickly identified and documented. This serves the dual purpose of having a consistent reference point when one encounters a knowledge gap which makes it easier to know when new documentation is needed.

A common ‘toolkit’. Whether that be physical tools or methodologies, they must be constantly maintained and updated when new challenges arise. If part of the day-to-date process involves a high level of preparation for each task, issues can be detected much earlier in the process.

Most importantly, set expectations. Tell your team members that failure is part of the process and prepare them to be ready for it. A true failure is really when mistakes are made and not detected.

Laying the foundation of your workplace training program with opportunities for safe failure allows people to learn roles and responsibilities more quickly and at a better quality. It also allows the employer to plan for failure because they can easily anticipate when it will happen. This means starting from day one, the focus is less on downloading information into people’s brains and more on helping them develop good troubleshooting skills.