Creating a Positive Environment for Failure

So you’re a founder.  Good for you.  But are you really ready for what that means?  If you are a good founder, you are starting something new, something that hasn’t quite been seen before.  This means you are going to make mistakes, encounter failures, and struggle with incorrect assumptions.  So how can you make sure these don’t destroy your company?  Create a positive environment where failure can thrive openly, and be dealt with in a cool and confident manner.

Here are five steps to help you accomplish that at your startup:

1)  Respond positively to small failures.  
Reward employee failures that arise from taking a risk.  Your company won’t innovate without risk, so employees must know you value it.

2)  Hold blamefree Post-Mortems.  
Blame never solves problems.  When a failure arises, discuss with your team the process changes needed for avoiding it in the future, rather than pointing fingers at who caused it this time.

3)  Find a failure every day.
Encourage yourself and your team to admit one failure every day, even if it’s fun and silly.  This will make discussions around failure comfortable and easy. People will know they are in a safe place to share their mistakes, and that no one they work with is perfect (or thinks they are).  It will also help you find potentially fatal failures early and fix them quickly.

4)  Make failure fun.
Put up a pin-board at the office of top failures (ones that helped create new innovation, or identified a process problem you could fix).  Capture them with silly photos or fun emails.   In the “find a daily failure” talk, vote on the best failure and reward that member.

5)  Distinguish good failure from bad failure.
Most importantly, know the difference between a good failure and a bad failure.  From this post, it may sound like you should encourage ALL failure.  Not so.  Failure to get work done: failure to commit: failure to communicate: these will kill your startup and need to be identified quickly and handled cleanly.  Someone who seems to be failing for lack of trying needs to be spoken with politely and privately.  

First, ask what YOU can do to help them improve: maybe there is a team breakdown, maybe your expectations are too high (remember, employees are NOT founders), maybe this is the right company for them and just the wrong role.  Keep the first conversation positive and proactive.  

Then, if they still aren’t shaping up, you need to let them go quickly (I’ll put up a post on ways to to this, soon!) They are just hurting company moral.  

However, you cannot mix those people up with people who are failing because they are pushing the envelope, because they are trying something new in an effort to make something more efficient or stronger.  Those are people you want on your team.  If their behavior is interrupting the flow of others, take them aside and work WITH them on how you can encourage that innovation while keeping process smooth, but do not stop them from doing it.  Those are powerful failures that will lead you to succeed.

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