Great organizations rarely succeed without failing at least once. For example, only one undefeated team, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, has won the National Football League Super Bowl. The rest of the Super Bowl winners, 49 including this year, failed at some point during the season. Another sport, National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division I Basketball, features two teams in recent memory, the 2014 Wichita State Shockers and the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats, that had perfect seasons going into the March tournament but both failed to complete the perfect season. A question to pose is “Do organizations need to fail in order to find their true identity?”, or put another way “Is failure a pre-requisite, at some level, in order to achieve greatness?” Some may point to Floyd Mayweather and Rocky Marciano as individuals who both remained undefeated while achieving greatness. However, those were individual feats. Organizations, however, involve a wide variety of individuals and require a unified effort in order to achieve at the organizational level. Individual feats within an organization may actually make it become one-dimensional and therefore limit the organizations potential. Due to the number of individuals involved and their differing levels of abilities or talent, organizations will likely meet failure at some point. The leaders involved in these organizations must address what change must occur because of the failure(s) in order to achieve the organization’s highest potential. Without a confluence of ideas and change of direction, the organization may continue on a path that would ensure or encourage repeated failures.
Outside of the sports arena, business leaders demonstrate this principle well. Bill Gates had a company before Microsoft called Traf-O-Data that sought to analyze data from traffic tapes. The company and the process were a complete failure but Gates continued to work on his ideas until Microsoft was developed. George Steinbrenner actually bankrupted a team, the Cleveland Pipers, before owning the Yankees and helping them win six World Series between 1996 and 2003. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper due to lack of creativity and his first company, Laugh-O-Gram films, failed to make a profit. Steve Jobs was fired from his own company, Apple, and only after making a competitor, NeXT, that Apple acquired, was he placed back into positions of leadership.
Each of these large companies faced failure at some point in their history but the organization was able to overcome that failure because of the leadership of individuals within the organization. Few consumers remember one of Microsoft’s greatest product flops, Microsoft Bob, which was a user-friendly interface for Window computers in 1995. The project was too ambitious, required too much hardware for the typical computer at the time, and, as a result, the market could not support such a product. Bill Gates pulled the product from Microsoft’s lineup a year later in response. Taking chances, failing, and then reassessing the direction forward are essential to the growth of large organizations. This ability to take chances and then to learn from them is one of the aspects that can make organization’s great; yet, this also requires someone in the leadership who has also faced, and overcome, failure. By having someone in a leadership position that has faced failure, the organization’s failure is placed into context. The failure now has meaning and proper direction instead of just accepting facts or assigning blame. Therefore, if the experience of failure by an individual within the leadership is essential to organizations becoming great once they fail, why do certain units within an organization push a zero-defect mentality?
Every leader is guilty of a zero-defect mentality at some point. The failures of a subordinate are viewed as extreme and dealt with in a fashion that does not embrace learning. The subordinate that failed now has a sour taste in regards to the rest of the organization and the negative image can seep into other areas of performance. Most leaders realize what they, and their actions, are doing to their subordinates and, after only a couple of instances; they change their approach to failure. Instead of resorting to anger, browbeating, or overly dominant behavior, the leader must learn to slow down, listen to the individual’s failure, help them mend any damage created, and then learn from the failure. This approach may be easier said than done. This approach must also be modified in certain instances, such as a failure that results in injury or death where a more forceful response is warranted. In addition, at the extreme, there are instances in which complete termination from the organization is warranted because of the grievous nature of the offense.
These times of forceful responses and termination are fairly rare in regards to the spectrum of failures. Most failures are in mundane tasks that have little impact on the organization’s success but can serve as a learning point for that individual. In some organizations, all failures are seen in one light; the extreme case which results in forceful response or termination. This zero-defect mentality has toxic effects within the current organization for the immediate future but it also deprives the individuals who will become the future executives of essential growth and learning by experiencing failure. By allowing subordinates to fail, in a controlled manner, and then facilitating a learning process after the fact, the leader may be to exercise one of the most effective tools for developing leadership. As Henry Ford once said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” In this New Year, realize that within the spectrum of failure, there are many types of mistakes and very few of them require a harsh approach. Rather, use those instances as learning points in order to develop the future leader of your organization and provide the organization a potential leader to weather a future storm of failure.