Executive Education Wharton at Work
Wharton@Work October 2010
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Don't Fear Failure. Practice for It.

Don't Fear Failure

Long rapids, dangerous rocks, powerful waves, blind curves, and narrow gorges. In a small boat prone to rolling over, Category IV kayaking is not a sport for the risk-averse. "In a kayak," Wharton management professor and author Greg Shea explains, "failure is the only option. Kayakers know they're going to flip. They expect it, and, more importantly, they plan for it. Business leaders can do the same. Fearing the inevitable means you're putting out a lot of misplaced energy. Instead, learn how to anticipate career ‘rolls' and practice dealing with them – before they happen."

Shea continues, "In a kayak, the river pushes you over, and you're upside-down. In any other craft you would say you capsized. Kayakers, though, just say you flipped. You roll yourself back up and get on with the journey. It's only when you can't roll yourself back up that you capsize." Today's business environment is a lot like that river. In fact, the term "permanent whitewater" is often used to describe it. Shea explains, "It's no longer a world that is steady state, then changes, then goes back to being steady state. There is constant change, for a number of historical, economic, and technological reasons. Operating as if that steady state is around the corner is completely misguided."

Lesson in Real Time

Fearing failure, you anticipate only positive outcomes. When the inevitable misstep takes place, you're caught without a quick plan to right the wrong.

Take a lesson from expert kayakers: flips are going to happen. Practice the rolls that put you back in control and avoid capsizing.

Part of learning to navigate in whitewater is acceptance of failure, or "flips" in kayaker terms, as inevitable. "We should anticipate both because of the work we do and because of our own idiosyncrasies that we are likely to get in trouble. We're going to flip, so we need to practice rolls as kayakers do to get back up. In a kayak, if we can't roll, we have to drag ourselves out of the water. It's cold, and it wastes a lot of time – both ours and our companions'."

In Leading Organizational Change, Shea, who is academic director of the program, stresses the importance of working quickly through any failure. The faster, and more adeptly, you right the wrong, the more manageable that failure will be. "The only way to do that is through practice and anticipation. Anticipating and practicing for the inevitable rolls in your career is not as difficult as it sounds."

The co-author of Your Job Survival Guide: a Manual for Thriving in Change offers a simple example. "You receive an e-mail that has a hint of emotion in it, and you respond, for whatever reason. We all do it. You know your response should not be via e-mail, but because you're short on time or the matter is urgent or you feel that the relationship can handle it, you send a quick note back. When you get a response, you know you made a mistake: you flipped." Shea notes that recovering quickly from such an error takes practice. "The lead in to the practice roll is recognizing that you're upside-down: getting involved in a heated e-mail exchange is a mistake. Then, the roll can take a couple of forms. An e-mail that says ‘I think we're missing each other. Let's talk,' works. Or, you can go down the hall and find the person, or pick up the phone and say ‘We got off on the wrong foot. Can we reset this and start over again?' The goal," says Shea, "is being able to roll. If you can't, you're no longer flipped – you're capsized."

Minimizing Risk

Shea offers suggestions for avoiding capsizing:

  1. Work your way up to the big water. Start with runs on a Class I river with easy rapids. When you gain the skills from the small, but inevitable, failures (and successes!), you can take on more serious water. Developing yourself takes time and discipline.

  2. Be honest about the true risks. Know what you're getting into and be sure you have the skills to meet it. Also, be honest about your own capabilities and those of others.

  3. Find a way to fail that doesn't kill you. Betting the ranch does not make for successful failure. If you want to move in a new direction, figure out what percentage of your time you should invest in the move, and treat it like a risky financial investment.

  4. Pack your own chute. Taking care of yourself includes negotiating a sound employment contract on the way in, when you are on a roll, and when the labor market is hot; keeping your personnel file updated; living prudently (have access to money that covers at least six months of expenses); and getting out and about (conferences, trade shows, and executive education provide the opportunity to learn as well as to see and be seen).

"Ultimately," says Shea, "'mastering the roll' begins with accepting that you're going to flip. When failures are no longer dreaded but accepted as inevitable, you become both more willing to take on challenges and better equipped to right yourself when the flips occur. Allow yourself to think through worst-case scenarios so you can anticipate those outcomes. Then, practice responses. You'll be empowered knowing that you're equipped not only for your successes, but also for your inevitable failures as well."

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