Is our fear of failure stopping us succeeding?

The surest way never to fail is never to try anything different. But does that mean we’ve succeeded? Or does it mean that we will never move forward in terms of quality, productivity and delivering more value to our customers?

The occasional failure is an inevitable part of progress and of being an innovative learning organisation. This doesn’t make failure a good thing in and of itself, the question is whether, as an organisation, we are able to learn from failure and accept that failure is sometimes the price of progress.  Is it still fairly new to us to recognise the importance of learning and sharing from an experience.

Most organisations, not just in the construction sector, are uncomfortable with failure. We like to see ourselves as infallible perfectionists. As a result, we can blind ourselves to occasions when things could have been done better. We also become too timid to try something new.

Throughout many sectors you will find managers at all levels with a common experience: tried something different, didn’t work, got hammered for it, never again. There may be fewer mistakes but all that’s really being perfected is the art of mediocrity.

The need to place (and avoid) blame when things go wrong is a natural human instinct. Too often blame is what underlies any post failure review. Blame the process, blame the customer, blame the weather, blame some poor individual who couldn’t dodge the ‘blame bomb’ quickly enough. Does that get us anywhere?

Despite good intentions, too many organisations are stuck in the blame game. Leaders wrongly equate lack of blame with lack of accountability and fear that teams will think that ‘anything goes’ if there is no comeback. This analysis only stands up if you believe that that the majority of failures are genuinely blameworthy. In other words, down to somebody deliberately not following an agreed procedure or course of action.

In reality, how often does this happen? It represents a tiny percentage of the reasons for failure. The causes, and the learning that needs to happen lie elsewhere. And is there ever a single cause? Often the real reasons remain unexplored as soon as we’ve found something or somebody to pin the blame on.

As an industry, lack of innovation and calculated risk-taking makes us vulnerable and is hampering productivity, resulting in construction lagging behind many other sectors. The confrontational nature of many contracts also acts as a significant barrier to trying new ways of working and ideas.

Sharing lessons from our failures (or successes) would help us all improve. But it isn’t something we are good at – we don’t want to look or feel like failures in front of our peers. We have to get over the fear of failure so that we can all succeed in improving quality and productivity.