When Failure Actually IS an Option

failureWe’ve all failed from time to time. I know I certainly have.

But failure should never be seen as a negative occurrence. But rather, as an opportunity to teach or learn, and grow.

It’s only when people don’t learn from their mistakes that you begin to have a problem.

As a leader, you should allow your teams room for mistakes and errors, and make sure they know they shouldn’t fear failure.

Writing for FastCompany.com, executive creative director of Doner Los Angeles, Rob Palmer reminds us that when people know they have a safe place to land if they try something different, yet fail, they will become less risk-averse, and more open to new strategies and ideas.

“Next thing you know,” he writes, “you will have nurtured a culture of risk-takers that care as much about the success of their workplace as you do.”

He shares a few things he’s learned about failure over the years, and they apply to most industries or organizations.

Motivating with Fear is for Dictators

Maybe you’ve worked for a ‘dictator’esque’ boss or manager in the past. Maybe you’ve been one? Either way, using fear as a motivational tool is not going to get you very far. As Palmer relates, for people to be creative problem solvers, they have to feel they can explore and go places no one has been before.

“You’ve got to allow them to explore a hundred bad ideas in order to get to the good one. If you’re not open to hearing a bad idea, only ideas that are safe and bland will be presented.” And bland is never good.

Elicit Permission to Fail

Make it as clear as humanly possible that under your watch, people are allowed to test, try, and yes, sometimes even fail. Trust me, they won’t believe it at first. It’s your job to continually remind your teams that not only is it ok, it’s expected and encouraged. Here’s why.

“The good news is that granting permission to fail doesn’t necessarily mean people will. It’s often quite the contrary.This permission, this blessing of impunity, is what the best minds want. And with it, they will deliver. Projects will be consumed with gusto. Bad ideas will flow and make room for the good stuff. Permission to fail is like saying, “I believe in you.””


If you don’t think allowing a few hiccups is your cup of tea, or if it simply doesn’t work for your organization, then by all means, don’t provide a safe place for periodic failure.

But if you do decide to try out this line of thinking, that great work comes from freedom and the ability to fail every now and again, you can’t back peddle the first time someone’s big idea bombs.

“Winning the war here is the end goal, not a few battles along the way,” Palmer explains, “Going back on your word is not an option, especially if it leads to disciplinary action. People will follow all sorts, but nobody trusts a wishy-washy leader.”

Permission to fail is not permission to do second rate work. Instead, it is a window of opportunity that will shine light on your most creative thinkers.

What would you add? Do you agree or disagree?

1 reply
  1. Melissa Sienicki
    Melissa Sienicki says:

    I completely agree, and I think that you have to personally allow yourself to fail as well. Your boss can give you permission to fail, encourage you to think out of the box, but if you’re not giving yourself that leeway as well it won’t work; a hard lesson to learn if you’re a Type A personality. Thanks, Bill!

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