Back in 2011, I had an idea. I knew it would turn out to either be a boom or a bust situation, but I honestly had no clue which scenario was more likely. Nonetheless, I plowed forward with optimism, comforted by the fact that I was “walking the walk” and taking a risk.
The idea was to create a “failure wall,” by taking a large white wall in the office break room and encouraging employees and partners to write down their biggest mistakes, in black and white, for everyone else to read. I figured I’d do this by starting with myself. I snuck into the office in the middle of the night and stenciled some inspirational quotes by famous people about failure onto the failure wall. Things like “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm (Winston Churchill)” and “Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life (Sofia Loren).”
Then, I took a sharpie and wrote down a few of my own failures: Things like, “Should have sold simpli.com to that little company in Silicon Valley (Google)” and “Should not have waited so long to have kids.” I left a handful of markers and a few simple instructions: (1) Describe a time when you failed, (2) write what you learned, (3) sign your name.
The next morning, the wall was met with a lot of curiosity. Everyone gathered around at various times to read the quotes and my personal failures. It didn’t take long for a couple brave souls to add their own failures, and after a few weeks, there wasn’t much blank space left on the large wall.
Some of the entries are funny, like “I thought it was spelled ‘fale.’” Some are cringe-worthy: “I thought buying Yahoo at $485 was a good idea.” And some are a bit shocking from a manager’s perspective: “Waited for months for someone to tell me what to do before finally taking the initiative.” People have admitted to mistakes that cost the company millions, but no one has gotten into trouble. I know that if it’s on the failure wall, that means the writer has learned his or her lesson and was willing to share so that other could learn as well, so I’m not worried about it.
Ironically, the failure wall turned out to be one of my most successful ideas. Not only was it cathartic for individuals to expose their mistakes, but it also contributed to creating a company culture where failure could be openly acknowledged, accepted, and used as a learning tool.
In this way, the failure wall became bigger than the physical space it occupied. It allowed us to talk about mistakes, failures, accidents, and potential issues in a matter-of-fact, non-threatening manner. It gave us an easy way to propose a risky idea: “This might end up on the failure wall, but what if we … .” And it gave us a way to acknowledge when something didn’t go according to plan: “I screwed up, but at least I can put it on the failure wall.”
I had hoped the failure wall would lead to a culture shift, but to be honest, I could not have predicted just how effective it would be. The idea of transparency and putting everything out on the table is one of the core values I try to personally embody and infuse into the culture of every company I work with. It’s the diametrical opposite of showing only your strengths and hiding your flaws. But I for one believe it’s a better system, both in business and in life.