Failing Forward: Tips and Advice for Getting Back Up

Cheryl Flink, Ph.D.

What does it mean to fail forward?  

              Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to “fail forward” in the context of human-centered leadership.  I’ve had my share of successes and failures over my career, been challenged by the lessons of experience, had wonderful opportunities to lead, and crashed into some big walls. I myself have used the term “fail forward” when coaching innovation teams, encouraging my children when they suffer setbacks, and in pep talks to myself when I’m not feeling particularly resilient. Since the publication of John Maxwell’s 2007 book Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes Into Stepping Stones for Success, “failing forward” has become a catch-phrase used in many different circumstances. But what exactly does it mean?  Here are some definitions I found:

1)    To purposefully and deliberately use failure to find success.

2)    To embrace failing as stepping stones for future successes

3)    Moving on despite obstacles

4)    A cycle of failure and perseverance

I resonated with the last definition—a cycle of failure and perseverance. How calming to simply acknowledge and expect that failure will happen! But at the same time, I don’t think that the term “perseverance” gives us the whole story about how to get back up and try again. We really need two things: Yes, our own perseverance and determination. And, we need to be  accountable to our team members for failing forward together.

How do we get back up?

              Grit. Determination. Perseverance. Tenacity. Guts . . .  These words remind me of the old Louis L’Amour westerns I read as a kid, where the foremost trait of every hero or heroine was the ability to keep going despite any obstacle dreamed up by the author. Gunshot wounds, dead horses, starvation, dehydration, betrayal, imprisonment, lost love, broken bones, desert sun, winter storms—none of it stopped that lone cowboy from doing what he set out to do. That romantic, devil-may-care attitude, also implied a bullheadedness that isn’t what failing forward is really about. As individuals, we absolutely must take the time to learn from our experiences through reflection—and we need to foster resilience or we’ll simply flame out.

Reflect, don’t ruminate. Reflection is absolutely critical to failing forward but so often we don’t set aside time todo it. Yet taking the purposeful time to really dissect and digest the lessons of the day/week/month foster learning.  A friend recommended a personal planner that incorporated some unique tools including reflection exercise at various time points.  Questions like “what did you make the most/least progress on, and why?” and “What do you wish you had done differently?” and “Who should you thank or ask for guidance to help you move forward?” have helped me process my lessons of experience—positive and negative—so they help me get back up and move forward.  Note that reflection is not  rumination. Rumination is the process of churning over and over again emotional upsets. It’s that 2 AM “I can’t sleep” experience as you think about all the ways in which you could have done better or how a particular person did you a bad turn. Rumination does not help you fail forward. Reflection does.

Resilience. During COVID, resilience received a lot of emphasis and attention as we navigated through a global pandemic. Like me, you may be a tired of hearing about it. At the same time, the science demonstrate that resilience is critical to our ability to fail forward. Evidence-based research supports the importance of physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being in failing forward. It’s so easy to read about resilience practices but not actually do them. Make sure you move from theory to practice. Can you identify one resilience practice that you have absolutely committed to doing on a daily basis? I cannot get through the day without being outside, whether on a horse, taking a walk, hiking a trail, or sitting on the back porch. That’s my commitment.


How do we help our teams get back up?

              Our ability to fail forward also stems from how we are supported by our work teams. Individuals cannot fail forward alone—it requires the collective ability of our team. Failing forward does depend on the team’s psychological safety:  Amy Edmundson’s definition of psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” remains one of the critical concepts behind thriving innovation teams. At the same time, individual team members must be accountable for creating an environment that makes it safe to fail forward. I ran across the organization Fail Forward, which challenges individuals to reflect on how they foster or destroy team courage.  The organization's provocative survey uses the pronoun “I” and holds each individual accountable to creating a team “fail forward” mentality. Think about these questions: 

·  I respond encouragingly when you speak up, take initiative, and/or acknowledge a mistake.

·  I give you full credit for your hard work and the ideas/suggestions you bring to the table.

·  I ‘come to your rescue’, frequently offering advice for improvement or taking over things you are working on.

·  I tolerate under-performance and/or toxic behavior from other employees.

·  What have I said or done that created confidence or motivation for you? Can you share an example(s)?

·  What have I said or done that created confidence or motivation for you? Can you share an example(s)?

·  What have I said or done that diminished confidence or motivation for you? Can you share an example(s)?

In this view, each individual must take a hard look at the behaviors that foster motivation and courage within the team. That personal accountability to the team epitomizes human-centered leadership.


In Sum

              Failing forward requires perseverance in pursuit of our goals. But to keep that determination from becoming mere stubbornness, we must learn from our mistakes through reflection and build our own resilience to withstand setbacks. That personal accountability to failing forward extends to how we foster or destroy the courage of our team members to get back up when failure happens. Success—perhaps even succeeding beyond our wildest dreams—requires being brave enough to fail forward together.