Is freedom to fail a myth at your company?


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Is the freedom to fail a myth at your company?  Can you name one person in your organization that has had major visible failure?  If so, is that person still employed there?  If they are, is their career still on track?  If your business culture is risk adverse you may not be able to name even one person. 

Oh sure, you’ve read plenty of success stories in which the protagonist had to “overcome challenges.”  But I’m not talking about mere challenges that surfaced in a situation that ultimately was marked as an accomplishment.  I’m talking about when the lesson learned is “dismantle that thing, it won’t work.”  A few years ago it happened to me, and quite frankly I thought I might be labeled as damaged goods as a result.  But that’s not how this story ends.


In the mid 90’s a major consulting firm recommended to NCR Corporation that they create a professional inside sales organization.  Not just a call center or telesales group, but actually transition field-based, complex solution selling account management roles to a group that would not travel or engage in face-to-face sales meetings.  It sounds very easy now, but this was before the Internet and NCR’s hard charging field-based sales culture did not like the idea of being downsized.  I was asked to lead that initiative with a pilot program and after one year was then directed to dismantle it.  It turned out to be an idea before its time, but I learned some good lessons during that pilot and I wanted to document and share the experience with the organization.  That’s why I used a “learning history” format for my final report.

Learning History defined:   

A learning history is a unique approach for helping an organization learn from the experience and implications of its own learning and change initiatives.  All efforts to transform organizations sooner or later run up against the challenge of proving their value.  Yet traditional assessment approaches, reacting to everyday pressures, can easily undermine the original learning effort.  As people become aware of being judged and measured, they seek to satisfy the evaluation criteria instead of improving their capabilities.  The intrinsic motivation which drives learning is then supplanted by the desire to look successful.  Yet evaluation is vital to learning as a feedback process that provides guidance and support.  Learning histories were invented in response to this dilemma.


Creating an environment where it feels safe to fail is very difficult.  I suppose that’s why most business cultures are not really bent that way.  When you combine that with the fact that most of us are terrified of the prospect of individual failure it’s a wonder any risks are taken.  A learning history won’t change that fear.  But I can report that if you approach your change initiative leveraging a learning history point-of-view and format that the expression “experience is the best teacher” will come to life.  You and your organization will actually capture some learning from the project, and that helps take the sting out of failing.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Alan See
Alan See is Principal and Chief Marketing Officer of CMO Temps, LLC. He is the American Marketing Association Marketer of the Year for Content Marketing and recognized as one of the "Top 50 Most Influential CMO's on Social Media" by Forbes. Alan is an active blogger and frequent presenter on topics that help organizations develop marketing strategies and sales initiatives to power profitable growth. Alan holds BBA and MBA degrees from Abilene Christian University.


  1. Freedom to fail is code for process flex and for employee enablement and empowerment, and there are few companies which can successfully execute it. Zappos is endeavoring to do it through holacracy. W. L. Gore has been doing it well for years. If there’s insufficient senior commitment, and/or cultural rigidity, initiative failure is more often the rule than the exception.

    Your example is a good one. While still Dayton-based, NCR was a client of mine, and my assignment was evaluating much this same structural, process, and cultural initiative, about 10 years ago, or 10 years after the trial initiative you led. Based on my experience, there was little latitude for empowerment or being enabled for multiple reasons, such as because of the ongoing fear of reprimand and termination; so, little had changed decade to decade.


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