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There are several reasons things fail: inadequate training, lack of information, complex systems, low confidence, lack of courage, or low motivation, just to name a few. We’ve all experienced failure, and it’s probably safe to say that we’ll all experience another form of failure in the future. But how you handle failure, what you learn from it and what you do next determines whether you can turn that failure it into success.
The richest information about how an organization can improve comes from failures. When employees aren’t afraid of their failures, it creates a space where they can voice their concerns and setbacks. Then the team can work to identify ways to remediate the issues and learn from them. It creates an opportunity for people to learn from each other and continuously improve, which in the end leads to better business outcomes.
After more than two decades as a CTO and cofounder, I’ve learned that embracing failures is the ultimate key to success. Here are four ways leaders can build a high-performing organization where teams solve problems faster because they know failure is okay.
1. Examine the system
I’ve been leading software teams for more than 20 years, and software failures have always been part of the job. Today, though, developers deal with increasing dependencies, complex infrastructure and sophisticated cyberattacks, creating more chances for failure. It also means that big software failures can have monumental repercussions.
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When something goes wrong, placing blame on an individual can feel easy and safe. It’s also super lazy. In today’s complex environments, issues usually arise from the design of a system. Organizational systems are built by collecting implicit values and decisions over time. They’re the culmination of the work of organizational leaders like yourself — not of individual employees. In “Thinking in Systems,” Donella Meadows says, “Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned.”
Remember that when something goes wrong, the system behaves according to its design. Take responsibility for your role in the system design and find ways to modify the layout to produce better outcomes — without blame. When you openly discuss the context and mental model that led you to that system, you send an important signal about your own willingness to improve.
2. Spend time embedded with your teams
At the executive level, there will always be communication breakdowns. Often by the time information reaches the top, it has been overly summarized and critical points are missing. One of the most valuable things you can do as a leader is directly connect with teams and cut off the game of broken telephone.
Spending time embedded with our engineering teams allows me to get direct feedback on how they feel about current processes and projects. Remember, they’re the ones who are intimately involved in day-to-day processes. By spending time asking about their experiences and what’s going on in their world, you’re helping them understand and identify gaps in the process and improvements that need to be made.
As leaders, we’re often pulled in many different directions throughout the week. Although it can be challenging to find the time to really embed with teams, it’s important to make the time. Without providing clear direction and getting their feedback, it’s nearly impossible to move forward. None of this can happen without asking about their experiences, really listening and using that feedback to improve.
3. Create a blameless culture
High-performing organizations and teams can only exist when everyone’s wellbeing is prioritized. With a “blameless” culture, we put everything on the table and comfortably analyze the shortcomings of what we built. A blameless culture creates an environment where engineers are not afraid to fail. Admitting to failure allows us to find and fix our problems faster, learn from them and improve.
When teams feel safe to talk openly about failures without fear of retribution, they expose areas for improvement and can take action to make things better. By establishing a blameless culture, you’re able to uncover weaknesses and learn from mistakes. The knowledge you gain allows you to experiment and iterate, which spurs innovation.
4. Set the tone from the top
Successful leaders put into practice what they promote. Executives set the tone from the top, and if my fellow executives don’t embrace and enforce a blameless culture, then how can I expect anyone else to? Everyone needs to be an active participant in creating a culture where it’s okay to fail.
At the executive level, this creates room for creativity and experimentation. Ultimately, I care about outcomes, and if I can create an outcome by trying something new and different, I need the freedom to know that it’s okay to fail.
By embedding with different teams, creating a safe space for them to fail without blame, and extending that blamelessness into your own practices, you can empower your organization to continuously improve your processes, your product and your corporate culture.
Rob Zuber is CTO of CircleCI
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