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Category Archives: management

Ann-Maree Moodie
June 26, 2009

It’s taken months of hard work, with large amounts of money and time invested to develop the new product and launch it to the market. But as the project’s deadline draws closer, it’s clear your team isn’t going to make it. And if they do, it will only be after cutting corners. You have to admit the deadline is never going to be met and the completion date will blow out along with the budget.

Do you blame your team in a bid to share some of the inevitable grief coming your way from the chief executive or even the board? Do you tell the project leader he’s incompetent, unreliable, that he’ll never get a job in this town again?

Or do you accept the reality of the situation, take the time to understand why the project didn’t meet the deadline and work out how to fix the problem? Do you learn from the process and apply this when you start afresh? Does your team stay energised and engaged even though they know they’ve let you down?

If you recognise yourself as the second type of manager, you’re what management academics call a “failure-tolerant leader”, a manager who helps his or her team understand the role of failure as part of the path to success. Or more pertinently, that failure is a prerequisite to invention. Coined by Harvard professors Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes, the term describes managers who encourage their teams to see beyond simplistic, traditional definitions of failure.

That’s not to say that all failures are the same. Failure-tolerant leaders distinguish between inexcusable failures and excusable errors. Inexcusable failures are mistakes that result in someone being killed or injured; or they are errors caused by laziness or carelessness. Excusable failures are those that are part of learning; they often occur when a new idea is being tested.

“Failure-tolerant leaders know that as long as someone views failure as the opposite of success, rather than as its complement, that person will never be able to take the risks necessary for innovation,” Farson and Keyes wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Failure-tolerant leaders are leaders who through their words and actions help people to overcome their fear of failure and in the process create a culture of intelligent risk-taking that leads to sustained innovation.”

As the chief executive of Deloitte Digital, a division of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu that creates ideas for new products and services, Peter Williams understands that tolerance of failure is part of his job.

“When organisations undertake a project they often do it on a very large scale,” he says. “There are tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment involved and lots of pressure from management to roll out the finished project with a big bang. Therefore, the price of failure is very high a publicly listed company will get smacked in the market and the individual who heads the project will forever be seen by others as ‘that person who stuffed up’.”

Williams and his team take a different approach, starting small and testing their results regularly. Williams will build a prototype and take it into the field to get feedback often from customers. “The trick is not to get too big too early,” he says. “Do it faster and cheaper using a prototype model and that way you’ll keep marginal costs down and the risk will be lower.”

Another tip is to take a portfolio approach to creative endeavours. Often an idea won’t fly immediately the timing is wrong for the market or a new technology to underpin the idea is not yet available and many people will consider this a failed idea rather than accepting that it needs to wait for its time or that it can be used differently.

Academic research on failure-tolerant leaders says they can engage at a personal level with the people they lead, take a nonjudgemental, analytical approach to communicating with staff and do as much as possible to circumvent competition that is destructive rather than healthy. They also admit their own mistakes.

“Sometimes you have moments of self-doubt, so a certain level of resilience is also useful,” Williams says. “If you worry too much about saving face you won’t be able to create the culture in your team for testing ideas and accepting that some will fail.

“You need to believe in your team and surround yourself with clever people. And it must be said that a being a failure-tolerant leader is also helped by having a few successes from time to time.”

Ann-Maree Moodie is the managing director of The Boardroom Consulting Group.