How safe do your employees feel in taking risks at their work? “Making it safe to fail is crucial because learning happens through experimentation, and experimentation often results in failure,” say Peter Dahlstrom, et al., authors of Fast Times: How Digital Winners Set Direction, Learn, and Adapt. Merely saying, “it’s safe to fail,” however, is vastly different from creating an environment where it’s psychologically safe to do so. As with most change, this shift in thinking has to come from the top.
As the co-founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX (among other technology companies), Elon Musk has become known for his exacting standards, fierce work ethic, and “audacious goals.” He is also known for succeeding where most fail. Interestingly, he’s also known for… well… failing. So much failing, in fact, that financial and business news outlet MarketWatch poked fun in its now-iconic post, “The Many Failures of Elon Musk, Captured in One Giant Infographic.” Musk, however, isn’t bothered by the criticism. When interviewed about the many failures his companies experience on their way to success, Musk replied simply, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating.” And, there it is—that simple shift in thinking that not only gives his employees permission to reach for something, but the courage to actually do it. Far from empty words, Musk leads this philosophy by example.
On August 2, 2008, SpaceX attempted the third launch of its Falcon 1, an ambitious rocket program that strove not only to lower the cost of space access, but radically change the industry by providing reusable launch system pieces. A lot was riding on the launch. Musk had invested $100M of his own funds in the program, a sum that would cover 3 launch attempts, but no more. In addition to this financial pressure, he faced criticism from defense contractors around the world citing two previous launch fails as proof that SpaceX was in over its head.
Phase 1 of the launch went perfectly. Falcon 1 cleared Earth’s field of gravity, the portion of the flight where the vessel experiences the harshest physical conditions. However, as the rocket moved into the second phase of the flight—where the thruster engine should uncouple from the portion of the rocket that continues into space—a defect in design caused the two pieces to collide catastrophically. The rocket was lost. The launch failed. Dolly Singh, Musk’s Head of Talent Acquisition, said of the experience:
Thankfully, the story doesn’t end, there. Musk exited the trailer where he’d been commanding the mission, ignored the clamoring press, and walked directly to the warehouse where his employees were waiting in near silence. He didn’t sugarcoat the failure. They were reaching for a very difficult goal, he told them, and that was impossible to do without getting some things wrong. Musk told his employees he had secured additional funds, and that everyone’s job was covered for two more launch attempts, if needed. He proceeded to list all of the things that had gone right with the launch, and all of the things they had learned from the previous two failures. Then he said loudly and with great conviction, “For my part, I will never give up, and I mean never. If you stick with me, you will win.”
Singh remembers an almost magical change that moved through the room. “Within moments,” she said, “the energy of the building went from despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination as people began to focus on moving forward instead of looking back.” Failure didn’t mean they’d lost—it was simply the experience they needed to learn how to win. Within hours, the team had identified the cause of the launch failure. Within 7 weeks, they had another rocket fully manufactured, and on September 28, 2008, Elon Musk and his team successfully launched their redesigned Falcon 1—making it the first privately built rocket to achieve Earth orbit.
Learning to see failure as a learning opportunity—and a positive experience—can seem counterintuitive and scary, but our teams are watching us. When we shift the focus from the failure to what can be learned from the experience, everyone grows, and everyone wins.
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