Cultivating a Fail Fast Culture

In last month’s blog What does it mean to cultivate a fail fast organizational culture we shared what typically happens when people experience failure, and how important it is to uncouple people’s fears about failure and to support and enable them to “normalize” it.  How cultivating a fail fast culture enables organizations to survive, flow and flourish involves interpreting and applying failures as manifestations of learning and exploration rather than trying to avoid or out-think them!

We explained that when people fail, they unconsciously sink into a series of reactive responses, that engage them neurologically and emotionally resulting in a range of irrational cognitive (thinking and feeling) distortions, which usually involves disappointment, confusion and shame.

People then move away from and avoid solving the problem because of these pervasive un-resourceful states and act defensively, which usually involves laying blame, making justifications, excuses, and operating from denial as illustrated below in Diagram 1.

Diagram 1 Typical Reactive Response to Failure

Taking a reflective stance

Alternately, we can use the experience of failure to support ourselves and others we interact with, as a pivot point and as a manifestation of learning and exploration. We achieve this initially, by stopping and taking a reflective stance and intentionally hitting our “pause buttons.”

Doing this enables us to “work with” what is really going on (the story) when our own, and the mistakes and failures of other people, are involved. It also helps us to cultivate self-awareness, self-regulation and ultimately the self-mastery to deal with making changes, taking risks, making mistakes and failing consciously and constructively, and to innovate and learn.

Cultivating Fail Fast teachable and coachable moments

When someone experiences a failure, a more useful strategy could be to support them hit their “pause button” and to then teach them how to better self-regulate and work within it. This allows them the time and space to take a quick “reflective stance” and safely associate with their range of thoughts and feelings, and to connect with the results they caused. Illustrated in Diagram 2 below, working this way creates the safe and collective holding space allowing the person to move towards associating with, and acknowledging both the pain and the fear.

It also allows the creation of a new space where they have permission and trust be-come inquisitive and curious. To explore and apply specific questions to uncouple their fear, break their operating pattern and choose a more resourceful response to it next time.

Diagram 2 Choosing a Constructive Response to Failure

Choosing a constructive response to failure

They can then hit the “pause button” a second time and create the safe holding space for mindfully generating a teachable and coachable moment by using the specific questions to generate a new, more resourceful operating pattern next time a failure occurs.

This enables the person to take responsibility, and acknowledge that their locus of control is within them and when they step into it, and own it, they can continually learn from mistakes and failures, and coach and teach their people to do so as well.

This way of working allows people, to apply mistakes and failures as “teachable and coachable moments” so that people become less risk adverse, defensive and avoidant. It can be used to empower people to be-come authentically courageous, creative and decisive smart risk takers and game changing agility shifters.

Driving our fear and normalizing failure

“If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we can make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. This is why I make appoint of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar, because they teach us something important: being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them. My goal is not to drive our fear completely, because fear is inevitable in high stake situations. What I want is to loosen its grip on us. While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.”

Cultivating trust in the workplace

One of the key points that Ed Catmull makes is about creating an environment where trust becomes an inherent part of cultivating a fail fast culture;

“Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes.  It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it.”

It takes patience and acceptance, transparency and authenticity, and consistency and compassion. It requires a way of working that assumes people come from the best intention and want to see, respond to and solve problems creatively.
Using failures as pivot points, unleashes peoples’ potential for innovation, and enables organizations to build the foundations for out innovating their competitors.

This is the second blog in our series of 3 blogs, by Janet Sernack on cultivating a fail fast culture.

At ImagineNation™ we provide innovation coaching, education and culture consulting to help businesses achieve their innovation goals. Because we have done most of the learning and actioning of new hybrid mindsets, behaviors and skill-sets already, we can help your businesses also do this by opening people up to their innovation potential.

Join the next free monthly webinar in our Making Innovation a Habit Series – “Coaching to Lead Innovation.” It’s on Wednesday, 15th August, 2018 at 9.00pm Melbourne & Sydney, 5.30pm New Delhi, 2.00pm Paris, 4.00pm Abu Dhabi, 9.00am Rio de Janero & 7.00am New York. Register now.

Find out about The Coach for Innovators Certified Program, a collaborative, intimate & deep personalized learning program, supported by a global group of peers over 8-weeks, starting October 2, 2018. It is a deep blended learning program that will give you a deep understanding of the language, principles & applications of a human centered approach to innovation, within your unique context. Find out more.

Contact us now at to find out how we can partner with you to learn, adapt and grow your business in the digital age.