Failure. Perhaps this is one of our
greatest fears in tackling change in our lives and in our professions.
So many of us know we can do better than our current state – in our
lives and in our organizations. But, what is it about fearing failure
that causes us to be frozen in place? How can we overcome the fear of
failure so we can realize greater opportunity and success?
The news is filled month after month with stories of companies who fail
at a particular initiative. Just take a look at all the literature and
studies about technology project failures – those alone would scare
anyone into being cautious about taking on that kind of project. Then
there are failed marketing campaigns, failed product launches, and the
list goes on.
There are any number of reasons failure intimidates us into inaction –
particularly in our organizations. Perhaps you are a member of an
organization which preaches the entrepreneurial spirit and “encourages”
risk taking, only to discover after taking a calculated risk you are
penalized for taking that risk. Maybe your organization does not
encourage risk taking and experimentation at all, only to remain mired
in sub-optimal performance. These are only two situations which cause
employees and managers alike to avoid taking action on challenges and
issues which everyone knows need to be addressed. (Note: this is also
one of the primary reasons for employee dissatisfaction in an
Have hope! There are ways to identify and mitigate specific issues that,
at the root, are driving the fear. Using risk management principles to
navigate specific initiatives or situations can minimize, if not
eliminate, risk and can go a long way to reduce the stress and anxiety
the fear of failure can cause.
Use the following three steps to identify and address the fear of
failure – these work in almost any situation:
Start slow to go fast
Change in any organization can be a challenge, often presenting
perceived threats to employees, customers, vendors and other
stakeholders. When undertaking a change initiative, start the process
slowly. Take time to identify and define the change that is being
considered. Gain input from all affected parties, listening carefully
for suggestions and ideas. Listening reduces the perceived threat to
others by communicating that their ideas are welcome and of value.
Develop a communication plan which address “outgoing” communications
(who will receive them and when), and feedback mechanisms. Throughout
the change process, listen carefully for feedback - especially that
which comes from informal channels. In large, multi-national
corporations it is said that one angry phone call from a customer
represents 10,000 customers with the same opinion. Consider that when
you hear negative feedback about your initiative, and address the
Communicate often and through multiple channels being very specific
about the 5 “W”’s – who is involved, what the change is, when the change
will take place, where the change will occur and why the change is
Once you have defined your initiative, gained feedback and consensus,
and laid the groundwork for the change, you can speed up the pace of
change in implementing the change. This helps build momentum and
enthusiasm for the value the change will provide.
Minimize and mitigate risk
There are a variety of ways to manage risk factors in an initiative;
however, one of the best and easiest ways to manage is by creating a
Risk Assessment Matrix. This is simply a matrix listing each identified
risk (whether real or perceived), and an assessment of 1) the likelihood
of occurrence, and 2) impact if the risk were to occur.
If you want to get fancy, you can assign numeric values (e.g. 0-2) to
the likelihood of occurrence and the impact. Then, you can multiply the
likelihood and impact values to obtain a total “score”. A score of 0 or
1 would be low risk, while a score of 4 would be a high risk.
Depending on the scale and organizational impact of your initiative,
develop a specific mitigation strategy for each medium and/or high
risk item you have identified. In addition, identify the specific trigger(s) or event(s) which will highlight that the risk is occurring
so you and your team know what to be looking for over the course of the
initiative. If/when these triggers occur, you will already have your
mitigation strategy defined so it is only a matter of executing the
strategy. You’ll be in a position to react quickly, rather than be left
wringing your hands and trying to figure out what to do.
Have a backup plan
Let’s admit it, not all change initiatives go off without a hitch.
Sometimes the challenges are so great that you just can’t move forward
until the issues are addressed. Be prepared for these situations with a
backup plan. Perhaps you’ll continue with the existing processes, or
maybe you will decide to use a modified or hybrid process.
Early in the project, define the various scenarios which could occur and
have a backup plan for each scenario. Be sure to include decision
criteria for each scenario, so it is clear as to how the decision will
be made to continue moving forward, or move to a backup plan. Review
this with your team ahead of time so everyone know what will happen in
the event of a problem, and how the situation will be resolved. This
alone provides a level of control when stress increases, and
communicates confidence in the team’s ability to make the right
Let’s all vow not to allow the fear of failure to intimidate us any
longer, and keep us from performing at our very best. Identify the root
causes of the fear, identify the strategies to address each cause,
create a backup plan and move confidently forward. As Alan Weiss, of
Summit Consulting, once said “Be bold – you won’t get shot.”
Understand the Current