Over the years, some organisations (including some I have been part of) have promoted the idea of ‘celebrating failure’, encouraging employees to be open when it comes to mistakes they have made in the past, in order to learn for the future. But how honest have we really been when doing this?

Psychologically, everyone has an invisible line which must not be crossed in admitting to failure – for example, would a hedge-fund banker shout from the rooftops about making a wrong decision that resulted in millions of pounds of losses? Possibly – but in reality, rarely.

Being completely honest about failure sounds, at least in theory, a cleansing idea; rid yourself of your mistakes and move on with a clean slate! However, more recent articles out there involving high-profile people within the tech sector suggest that being open about your previous failures is a lot more palatable with the passage of a lot of time and many subsequent promotions.

Admitting to failures means being vulnerable with your colleagues, a notion which people may or may not feel comfortable with depending on the organisation they work for. Gender can also play a part in how comfortable we may feel in doing this (a wider topic for another day 😊). Another classic trap when ‘celebrating failure’ can be social media; the mistake you made and shared about the time you messed up some figures on a presentation slide deck may well trip you up at your next interview when asked about your attention to detail…

The need to spin every mistake into a STAR-formatted story is also incredibly tempting, even if it is not strictly the truth. “I forgot to do x, which led to y… now I have a checklist which reminds me every time to complete x in future”… you might not have the ‘so what’ element nailed yet, and that’s ok.

Organisations often rely on tools to collate learning with the hopes that this repository is reviewed for future work; if you log a learning-from-experience event into the company system of choice, job done! But is it? As we know, tools alone never solve a whole problem, and I have yet to see a team utter the words, “Before we start on this new piece of work, let’s take a look at our company learning platform for any common gotchas!”

Another pitfall when mistakes are made is to fall into the blame shift pattern. Take this classic organisation-level example:

In 2019, Peloton released an advert across the USA in which a husband gifts his wife a Peloton (suggesting that she may need to work out more). Needless to say, the perceived sexist tone of the advert resulted in a customer backlash and the company’s stock price falling by 9%. Shortly after the commercial was broadcast, the company released the following ‘apology’ statement:

While we’re disappointed in how some have misinterpreted this commercial, we are encouraged by — and grateful for — the outpouring of support we’ve received from those who understand what we were trying to communicate.

Rather than recognise the errors made (or at least convey an understanding of why customers might not be impressed by the commercial), the company decided to shift the blame onto the customer for interpreting the advert in the way they did.

On the flip-side, when companies own up to mistakes and do something about them, great things can happen. Take a look at the example below:

In 2009, things were not going well for Domino’s Pizza company. A survey on consumer-taste preferences that year concluded that Domino’s produced one of the worst-tasting pizzas when compared to other fast-food outlets. In response to this, the company implemented an incredibly honest marketing campaign, admitting that the company had made some mistakes. The campaign involved Domino’s staff reading scathing reviews of the company and its pizzas, along with a promise to completely change the quality and recipe of their food.

The results of this total honesty and subsequent pivot speak for themselves. In 2011, Domino’s was named the “Chain of the Year” by Pizza Today Magazine, and by the end of 2010, sales totalled nearly $7 billion with same-store sales increasing by almost 10%.

Perhaps the real lesson from this is that the gold comes not from celebrating failure, but sharing the valuable lessons gleaned from it. Some questions we can ask of ourselves and our teams are:

  • How can this error and subsequent learning be shared wider amongst other teams?

  • How can the valuable lessons learned be easily accessible and digestible for future use?

  • How can an organisation create a safe space in which admitting failures (and sharing the learning) becomes a useful tool when it comes to continuous improvement?