What if, periodically, we could “reward” the idea of failure?

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The quote’s from here:

We have a problem in business where we don’t reward people for admitting they are wrong. We don’t reward people for being flexible leaders. We reward people for being right. If that is how you are going to get promoted, that is how you are going to get commissions, then of course that is the behavior we are going to encourage.

That’s one of the biggest problems of modern work. To wit:

If you’re a smart, relatively well-emotionally-adjusted person, is there really any place in a standard white-collar work environment for you?

You might say, “Hey, I’d like to know more about the context of the decision here.”

In all likelihood you’d get back one of the following:

  • “No time, rushing to my 2pm!”
  • “Show me the numbers.”
  • “Context doesn’t matter, we’re making big moves! It’s a sales play!”
  • (my personal favorite) “The decision was data-driven. That’s how we do things.” (That means someone looked at an Excel, barely knew what it meant, and made a decision based on gut anyway.)

Doubling down on failure as a metric for success

But let’s double down on failure for a second. Following this bouncing ball:

Turns out the highest stock growth since 1985 is a lesser-known company called Balchem Corporation, which makes flavorings and nutritional additives for animal feed. Their stock has grown 107,099% — that’s not a typo — since the year Back to the Future came out.

Most senior executives would lob off 2–3 key pieces of their anatomy for growth like that, all the while calling all-hands meetings and bellowing that “business failure is not an option!”

Years ago, Balchem invested in a new coating technology and it bombed. In 13 months, they lost 53% of their market share. Their senior leadership team could have dove through a series of plate-glass windows screaming about the injustices of disruption and market alignment, but instead they took their business failure and focused on three things:

  • Patience
  • Grit
  • Luck

You can’t per se “focus” on luck, but you get the point.

Especially in America, we live in a very now-now-now business culture. Everything is always so hectic! If an employee fails the first time he/she tries something, most managers go ballistic and totally forget that failure happens all the time, everywhere. There’s pressure and busyness and targets and deliverables and we don’t have time to appreciate anything even being remotely wrong — so we hole up chasing process and protocol (which we feel we can control) until 6pm and totally ignore most ideas about how ‘strategy’ (what the bigwigs are saying) aligns with ‘execution’ (the work we’re doing).

That’s business failure.

So it’s gonna happen.

And you can overcome it — and you can overcome it to the point of having insane stock growth.

Think Balchem is a lone wolf exception? Nope. Other stocks on that Wall Street Journal list include:

How could we reward failure?

It would be very hard and go against the grain of modern business, but some small examples:

  • Every time a boss admits failure in a team meeting, everyone puts in $5 to a collective jar. At the end of the month, it’s for a happy hour or employee incentives.
  • Change reviews of bosses to include 25% of the review coming from his/her direct reports and have a section about admitting failure.
  • Have meetings where teams “fire themselves” — and if there’s follow-up the next quarter on the “fireable offenses,” then that should turn into a financial incentive
  • Hold meetings where execs and VPs give a five-minute speech about their biggest blunder in that business; in short, normalize the idea that failure happens and the bounce-back can be really strong

I have a friend who got a memo from her employer a few weeks back that “mistakes will no longer be tolerated.” Could you imagine getting that memo? Mistakes are a natural part of human existence. Without them, you can’t grow. But some myopic middle manager somewhere decided they were bad and “unproductive” or whatever “data-driven metric” he decided to use, soooo… now everyone is walking on eggshells, work stress is about to go through the roof, and someone will probably get shit-canned because of a typo. (Talk about “mandatory minimums” as applies to white-collar.) That’s no way to set up a “culture,” but our over-focus on achievement and results and our inability to discuss/reward the context of failure got us there.

What else would you add on this topic?

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