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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

May 5, 2023


When looking for ways to improve and make progress, it is sometimes helpful to explore what could be the most negative outcome and what we can learn from that. This week we look at the benefits of thinking about how to break something in order to make it even better.



Welcome to episode 183 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we look at the benefits of thinking about how to break something in order to make it even better.

I was recently watching a documentary about SpaceX, the manufacturer and launcher of rockets, including the largest and most powerful ever made. In the documentary called “Return to Space” they reflected on the contrasting approaches to experimentation and progress used by SpaceX and NASA. The documentary explained that NASA focuses on getting things as right as possible on paper first before committing to a launch. This leads to an inherent conservative risk-aversion. Success from a NASA perspective is a rocket flight that’s perfect first time even if that takes a long time to get to. SpaceX in contrast has seen some of the most spectacular and dramatic rocket explosions ever. Instead of being disappointed by these or even viewing them as failures, each explosion was seen as an opportunity to gather data and learn fast. Elon Musk even declared their latest Star Ship launch as having a 50% chance of success. He said in an interview "I'm not saying it will get to orbit, but I am guaranteeing excitement”. Star Ship exploded prior to reaching orbit. Interestingly though, SpaceX’s other rockets now have an enviable level of safety and reliability. By breaking it, SpaceX are learning how to fix it.

So what does this mean for the rest of us leaders who aren’t in the space race? Whether it’s a physical product, a service, or a process, I believe there are several lessons we can learn and apply.

  1. Conduct a pre-mortem. A post-mortem is something we undertake after a negative event to find out what went wrong. A pre-mortem flips this process to consider what could go wrong in advance. In a pre-mortem we look at potential negative outcomes and work back to what might cause these, and therefore what we might do differently. This makes it far easier for people to speak up and air concerns.
  2. Check your culture. Organisations have different attitudes towards risk and failure. If you are in a risk-averse organisational culture, it’s helpful to consider how you can fail safely. Safe-fail experiments are a great way to stress-test what you’re building.
  3. Encourage people to be open about risks and failure. Often times people will attempt to downplay risks and cover up failures. Promoting sharing of these as learning opportunities can help people to be more forthcoming and honest.
  4. Focus on the system, not the people. When things go wrong, it’s easy to point the blame at individuals. Instead we should start with the system. This will encourage honest reflections and openness rather than fear of retribution.

I hope you found this helpful. Consider how you might fail-forward in your context. Have a great week.