Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies; I can watch it over and over and still be moved by the commitment of the flight Director, Gene Kranz, unwilling to give up on the crew and providing the leadership needed for the team to leave no stone unturned. With this commitment in the background, the constraints the team worked under led to unleashed creativity and solutions that ultimately brought the crew back to earth safely.

There are powerful leadership stories from Apollo 13, and many useful ones. One phrase has been quoted again and again, sometimes as a justification that there is no way forward but success: “failure is not an option!”. Given that human lives were at stake, this declaration from the Flight Director was appropriate at the time and unequivocal about the commitment.

In today’s business world, is failure an option?

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs repeatedly remind us that their road to success didn’t come as a straight line and was often the results of previous failures. What we tend to forget is that the daily life of a business, whether conventional or a start-up, is made of small or big failures: failure to win a bid, failure to deliver a plane on time, failure to retain high potential talent, failure to recruit high potential talent…and the list could go on and on…That is the nature of the game: take on new challenges, explore new territories (literally or figuratively), and sometimes fail!

Shifting the culture to overcome one of the most predominant forces against innovation
If the nature of the game of business involves both winning and failing, why is that we hear so much talk about “failing fast, failing often” as if these were new concepts? There are many rational and valid reasons to support embracing risk and failure: from failure we can learn how to adapt, to strengthen or even throw out concepts, products, services that did not meet the needs of a customer.
In working with teams over the years, I have noticed that rational reasons do not get to the actual experience of the individual: what was it like for me, in the moment and over time, when I failed to achieve my goal or deliver a project?
This is where the corporate culture comes into play, the unwritten rules of success and whatever is reinforced and rewarded within a corporation. Culture can be seen as the condition in which people think, act, and work in the organization; it acts like a force field, shaping and reinforcing what people think and do.

Without revealing the conditions and forces at play, it will be very difficult to shift to a culture where acknowledging when things don’t work out is truly an opportunity to learn and move forward.

How are you encouraging your teams to reveal the conditions at play on your organization? What are the spoken and unspoken rules about what it takes to succeed, how do you acknowledge when things don’t work out and handle failure? Does your culture leverage the opportunity to learn?

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