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How NASA's Approach to Failure Can Transform Your Company Culture

“It’s not rocket science!” Isn’t that what we often say when referring to the stress and difficulty of many of our everyday tasks? Well, at an organization like NASA, it is rocket science, and the stakes are much higher. Here, failure isn’t just a slip-up; it can mean catastrophe. A single mistake can jeopardize millions of dollars and even human life. In our recent Culture Labs Podcast, Dan Kasper got to meet with Brady Pyle, Senior Executive and Human Capital Officer at NASA and Space Center Houston. It was fascinating to find out the ways that NASA is also one of the world’s leaders in cultivating a culture of “failing forward.” If an organization that deals with the complexities of space exploration can embrace failure, surely the rest of us can, too.

The Stigma of Failure

It's human nature to perceive failure as something to be avoided, but that avoidance is often the number one mistake teams make around failure. This aversion fosters a culture of fear and stifles innovation. Even when “failure is not an option,” we need to cultivate a culture of trust and innovation that learns from and even celebrates the failures that make us stronger. Brady laid out a compelling framework for creating a culture that not only tolerates failure but learns and grows from it.

The Four Criteria for 'Failing Forward'

1. Open Dialogue

"First and foremost, we had to establish an open dialogue about failure. What does it look like? Why is it important?" 

In a fail-forward culture, open communication is vital. Team members need to feel safe discussing their mistakes without the fear of repercussions. This begins from the top. If the top brass are able to identify how the right kinds of failure open a pathway for innovation and improvement, it will allow the rest of the team to start sharing their own trials and experimentations with failure. 

2. Accountability

“When you mess up, own it; don’t try to sweep it under the rug,"

Owning your mistakes is not just about admitting to them; it’s about seeing them as learning opportunities. While crucial, this criteria underlines the importance of psychological safety in our workplace. When teammates know that you have their back and that it is OK to make mistakes, they will be able to own up to it. And it is always helpful to remind everyone verbally that “On our team, we own up to our mistakes.” 

3. Structured Learning

A mistake without a subsequent learning opportunity is a wasted mistake. It’s so easy for us to experience a mistake and think that all our effort was “wasted.” But stop and try flipping that narrative around. Our efforts are “wasted,” not because of failures, but because we forget to stop and learn from those failures. This brings us to the concept of "Pause and Learn."

Pause and Learn: The Introspective Step

"Pause and Learn" is a structured response to failure. It involves taking a step back to assess what went wrong and how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Think of it as the debriefing session NASA holds after each mission—success or failure. This step is where individual accountability morphs into collective wisdom. In our fast-paced business environment, running from one project to another is easy without carving out this crucial time. 

4. Celebrating Failures

"Last but not least, we also celebrate failures. It's weird, I know, but we have found that it helps to remove the stigma associated with failing," 

It sounds counterintuitive, but the final criterion in a “Fail-Forward” culture is recognizing and rewarding the act of failure. You might be thinking, “OK, I agree we should make our teams safe to fail. We should learn from past mistakes, sure, but celebrate failure? Now you lost me!” 

I love the quote from Thomas Edison, one of the greatest innovators in our history, when he said, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Basically, celebrating failure is the best way to capture the spirit and drive that compelled Edison to radically change the world. So I say, go big! Buy balloons, bring in a cake, whatever it takes to celebrate the 10,000 failures that will church out your company’s greatest achievement.

The Fail Forward Festival: Embrace, Don’t Erase

We can take this one step further. How about organizing a "Fail Forward Festival"? Dedicate a day to share tales of failure and the lessons learned from them. Give awards for the "Best Lesson Learned from a Failure" or the "Most Spectacular Fail." Make it engaging, enlightening, and fun. If you have a tangible representation of a spectacular fail, turn that into a trophy for the winner to display proudly.

The Instill AI-Driven Platform: Your Partner in Failing Forward

Let’s be honest: fostering a culture of 'failing forward' is not a one-time effort; it's an ongoing process that needs to be integrated into your company's DNA. That’s where Instill comes in. Our AI-driven platform helps you keep track of failures, learnings, and successes as we help you navigate through the Culture Vital Signs that make it easier for your team to grow together and evolve into a fail-forward culture.

So go ahead, embrace the failures, pause and learn from them, and then move forward—stronger and wiser than before. NASA does it. So can you.


Happy failing forward!

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