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Acceptable Failure

Chester Bullock

Published on 07/17/2023


Failure. It means different things to different people. It means different things at different stages of life.

I am no stranger to failure. But learning how to use it to my advantage is only a recent thing.

My earliest memories of failing go back to when I was 4 or 5 and learning how to ride a bicycle. We lived at the top of a big hill. I had mastered riding around my driveway and yard. But I wanted to prove I could venture further, down the hill, and come back safely. I had no idea what the speeds would be like, or how to stop at such speed. I crashed pretty hard into a friend’s yard. I don’t recall specifics, but I do recall being incredibly upset and in pain, and walking the bike back up the hill to my house. I do not recall a good response from my father, only adding to the sense of failure I felt. It was very powerful, so much so it is still one of my most vivid memories from 45+ years ago.

Failure in your career

Professionally I have had my own string of failures as well. Find me at a conference or call me sometime, I’m happy to talk about them. They used to be an embarrassment to me, until the mother of all failures hit. I have shared the story before, so I will put it on you to go listen if you are interested. It was some time after this epic failure, that occurred on a national stage, that I really started learning how to embrace my failures. I give credit to Alex Williams, then at Trendline Interactive, for starting conversations with me around the idea of acceptable failures. It is a concept that bears some thought - both because total perfection is not realistic, and because people need to grow.

Acceptable Failure

Before diving into what acceptable failure looks like, it’s important to understand why some failure needs to be expected and appreciated. Kentin Waits outlines what I think is the best list of things you can learn from failure in the article “7 Surprising Benefits of Failure”.

The key ones to me are:

  • Failure teaches lessons. There are some things I have failed at that I learned a great deal from, and there are other mistakes I have had to repeat a few times before I learned the lesson I was meant to learn. But there is always a learning opportunity there, and as a manager, it is my hope that people see that. I also feel it is my job to help them see it if they can’t get there themselves.

  • Failure helps us overcome fear. In the email marketing industry, one of the biggest fears people have is of “pushing the button” - the deployment of a campaign to a live audience. I don’t think I have ever been in another situation where I second-guessed myself so many times before taking an action. But after you make a mistake in an email campaign, large or small, you learn that the sun still comes up the next day, and there is more work to do. This actually helps you keep things in perspective.

  • Failure Inspires Creative Solutions. As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Sometimes a solution requires out-of-the-box thinking and the only way to get there is through trial and error.

Workplace Expectations

Having been in both the agency and brand-side worlds, I know that the daily expectation is total perfection. But as I previously mentioned, that is not realistic. So you need to reframe your expectations to allow for acceptable failures. The right mindset from a leadership perspective is critical. Here are my thoughts for how to deal with failures within your team:

Treat each incident as a learning opportunity. Not just for the person that made the mistake, but for yourself, the “process”, the whole organization. This is part of a mantra of continual improvement. Treat the person who made the mistake with grace and humility. At the end of the day, we are all human, with the emotions that go with that. Castigating someone harshly for a mistake doesn’t help the situation at all. Professionals will already feel bad enough and be really hard on themselves about whatever went wrong. They don’t need you piling on top of it. Don’t punish the person. This comes with a caveat outlined further down, but in general, punishing someone for making a mistake is going to be counter-productive to their well-being and that of the organization. You want people to feel safe about making minor errors, as that is part of the learning process. Be relatable. One of my most powerful tools when a team member makes a mistake is to share one of mine. I have made more than one, so I have a library to pull from. When you can relate to what they have done and be empathetic about it, they will likely be more diligent and confident in the future, seeing that you got to where you are by learning from your mistakes. Own your own mistakes. While this kind of goes with being relatable, it applies to you every day. Nothing magical has happened to make you immune to making a mistake, you will make more. Make sure you take responsibility in the same manner you would want your team to.

Approaching Mistakes as a Manager

Now, you may be asking yourself “does he think any and all mistakes are acceptable?” Of course not. There is a line that has to be drawn. It should be pretty easy to see where that line is. Two key factors for this line are:

  • Has the same mistake been made multiple times? If someone doesn’t learn the first time and makes the same mistake again, then you need to work with them to understand why this happened, and deliver a warning. If it continues to happen, then other actions may be necessary. This is not acceptable failure in my mind, it is more like willful ignorance, which I have less tolerance for.

  • Weigh the impact. If there are legal or financial ramifications for a given mistake, then the person who made the mistake needs to be made aware of this. And in the future, identical mistakes cannot be made. Once is understandable, but twice can jeopardize the business and you need to treat it as such.

I have adopted this approach with the teams I have been leading for the last 10 years or so, and it has proven successful. With each team, I have felt connected to them, and feel that I have earned their trust simply by showing that I can relate and own up to my own mistakes. More importantly, the teams have felt empowered to experiment and build good solutions without the fear that a failure means it is the end of the world. Morale with my teams has been great, and in turn, I also feel that I am helping them to become better leaders as well. Sure, mistakes still happen, but our ability to recover from them and prevent future ones has been one of the biggest benefits from this approach.

Thank you.

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