Walk through any gift shop or greeting card store and you’ll come across some item with the quote “What would you attempt to do if you could not fail?” While this inspirational phrase is meant to encourage us to take chances, I think it gets failure all wrong. Failure isn’t something to avoid. It’s not a destination—it’s a stop along the way to success. If you aren’t afraid to fail and view it as a piece of the productivity puzzle, then you can start to leverage failure to boost innovation.
Failure in the workplace
What does this have to do with the workplace, with healthcare, and with learning solutions? In my experience, the fear of failure holds us back in our jobs, in our work culture, and yes, in our personal life. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Earlier in my career I would obsess over my work and beat myself up over my failures. What I didn’t realize then is that few failures are terminal. There’s always the opportunity to learn from mistakes and regroup. I see now, almost 20 years into my career that the value of my experience is not just the successes I’ve achieved, but the wisdom gained from the many (many) mistakes I’ve made. I find almost everything I do is informed by a mistake, not in a fearful way, but rather with confidence in my path and choices.
In fact, my nearly 20-year career in learning and development began with a spectacular failure. I was hired to teach a popular desktop publishing software and had never taught a class before. The resulting class was a mess; I didn’t have mastery of the subject matter, I wasn’t experienced in classroom management, I hadn’t sufficiently prepared. It was, in Instagram speak, an #EPICFAIL. However, after the class, I wasn’t fired. The lead instructor worked with me; provided fair yet hard-to-hear feedback on what went wrong. I was given another chance. My next class went much better. Six months later, I was a top instructor and highly requested by clients.
Failure at Straightaway
At Straightaway, we aim to ‘fail fast.’ We are working to solve a problem that is yet to be resolved; how do you source, train and retain nurse aide talent? Failing fast drives innovation—using an agile process allows us to test what doesn’t work, dismiss it, and get to the real goal—succeeding sooner. Part of being a nimble organization is responding to feedback. Whether it is from our peers, our managers or our clients, we can quickly eliminate what doesn’t work and move to more informed approaches.
In any organization, we have the opportunity to learn from mistakes, but often our political and social structures make this difficult. We’ve all been in workplaces that look to blame when things go wrong. People naturally want to avoid being blamed, so they shift the fault to others, which may temporarily save the individual or team, but it’s not productive for the organization and its goals. If we combine a culture of productive failure with a plan for accountability, we can make great strides and avoid the stigma and ‘pain’ of failure.
“Stuff happens. Innovation is inherently risky. Cut your losses and move on.” 
Failure in learning
In learning, we harness the power of failure as a teaching tool. We call it ‘safe failure. ’ We create learning activities designed to fail and show learners the consequences of their decisions without the fallout. This is a smart approach when you have serious consequences for failure such as the health of a resident, or OBRA or HIPPA violations.
When looking at a failure, you want to consider the critical impact. We tend to treat all failures as catastrophic, when in actuality, most fall in the insignificant or moderate impact area. Being informed as the impact of failure can help us make better decisions and respond to failure appropriately.
Source: Gottfredson, C. (2014)
Ultimately, whether you are in an organization that plans for fast failure, or a classroom looking to prepare students for a career as a Nurse Aide, you want to create a culture where people respond to their failures by asking “what would I do differently this time?”
 Haff, G. (2017, April 20). Heck yes! A user’s guide to failing faster. Retrieved from https://opensource.com/open-organization/17/4/accountability-by-design
 Gottfredson, C (2014, February 24). Embrace the Benefits of Safe Failure. Retrieved from http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/1355/embrace-the-benefits-of-safe-failure