Fail often, fail fast: What PwC could learn from their blunder

Tanya Pinto

PwC’s massive mix-up at the 2017 Oscars has become a legendary failure, with people now questioning the integrity of the accounting firm in charge of managing the award results. Indeed, failure plagues every dynamic organisation at some point or the other, but the question remains: what is the right way to manage it?

Usually, we encourage employees to strive for success, and forget to prepare them for failure. Failure is often seen as the end of a dream, or a sign of defeat. However, dealing with failure can actually prove to be a goldmine of learning: it can help build a foolproof strategy to succeed in future attempts. Here’s why failure shouldn’t be a taboo at your workplace, and how the fear of failure can be managed better…

The attempt to avoid failure isn’t success: There’s an approach that most of us follow at the workplace. We try as much as possible to achieve success, and we do this by avoiding failure. We make sure that all the decisions we make have no chance of failing, and we generally avoid taking big risks. After all, no one wants to be blamed for causing losses to the company they work for. However, success isn’t about avoiding failure, failure often guides you towards the path of success. 

Failure is an indicator of innovation: Instead of perceiving failure as something negative, think of it this way: failure is an indicator that someone’s trying to achieve something that’s not been done before. Even Thomas Edison attempted to create the light bulb over a thousand times before he succeeded. Yet, instead of seeing that as a thousand failures, we think of the invention of the light bulb as one of the world’s greatest successes. Failure is unfairly categorized as an indication of loss. Instead, it should be seen as a byproduct of innovation. It’s better to have failed at trying something original, instead of not making an effort at all. 

Accepting failure could save valuable resources: When faced with a failing venture in business, it’s not the failure itself that’s harmful, but the unwillingness to accept it. An inspiring example of how accepting failure can lead to progress is when Google decided to re-invent the Google Glass project. After years of hard work and millions of dollars being invested in the ambitious project, Google accepted that the Google Glass wasn’t turning out as planned. “Early Glass efforts have broken ground and allowed us to learn what’s important to consumers and enterprises alike,” explained Google employee Tony Fadell. Instead of lugging on with the project, the team accepted that they needed a new strategy, and only launched the product when it was completely ready for consumer use. Accepting failure at the right time can actually be beneficial to innovation. It doesn’t mean that you should give up the venture altogether, but offers an opportunity to step back, gain a new perspective and develop a better strategy to win. 

However, the fear of failure is so deeply ingrained in our culture, that it can often be quite daunting to overcome. In order to battle the fear of failure and encourage employees to be more confident, we have some useful recommendations.

How to tackle the fear of failure

A pre-mortem of all that could go wrong with a project: Before launching an ambitious project, arrange a team meeting to discuss all the possible obstacles that could arise. This would be a great way to prepare for any future challenges, without panicking about the situation. Additionally, this would also eliminate the taboo that is attached with the idea of ‘failure,’ letting your team know that it’s not shameful or unacceptable to fail. 

Focus on trying new things, instead of perfection: Too much of an emphasis is unfairly placed on perfectionism at the workplace. Instead of worrying about being right all the time, employees should be encouraged to think of new ideas to boost productivity. As a manager, there are many ways you can achieve this. While successful initiatives by employees should be appreciated, make sure you also mention the efforts of employees who tried who ideas – irrespective of whether they succeeded. Yaniv from Peakon shares, “The issue with most workplaces today is that they treat failure like an outcome…like a definitive result of a project. Failure is not the end of an initiative, instead it’s just something you encounter when you’re trying to innovate. It only becomes damaging when you allow it to discourage or affect you.”

Encourage accountability, not blame games: An important change you’ll have to focus on is encouraging employees to be accountable for their work results. However, you should ensure that this doesn’t turn into mud-slinging. For example, if a project is not going as well as planned, ask each employee to share how she could improve her own approach, instead of encouraging her to blame other employees or external factors for the failure. This helps employees to embrace the idea of failure, which is a great way to dispel the fear of failure!

Accept that ‘success’ may not always match your expectations: Often you may chalk out particular objectives which you want to achieve with a certain project. However, as things progress, you realise things are not going to plan. You may not achieve the ultimate objective you set out to clinch, but may experience smaller wins along the way. Does this mean you’ve failed to achieve your goal? If you look closely, you may realise that’s not the case. Success is not only achieving what you originally intended to, but also various new skills or milestones gained along the way. In that sense, even ‘failure’ to achieve the original objective is success in its own sense.

Here’s the key point: allow your employees to fail often, and fail fast. The smartest leaders are the leaders who see failure as an opportunity. A chance to learn, to grow and to innovate. Every company needs to learn this lesson, if they ever want to succeed. PwC would do well to learn a lesson from their blunder at the Oscars, in fact it may be the best lesson they could have learnt. When next year rolls around, PwC certainly won’t make the same mistake again! Can you say the same for your team?

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