Does Your Organization Celebrate Failure?

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Author:  Doug Heestand – Partner

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Privo recently achieved a milestone of earning 50+ AWS Certifications and it made me reflect on how we got there so fast. It started last year at re:Invent when I was speaking to an AWS engineer (from another AWS Consulting firm) who was delaying–by 8 months (!)–his retake of a failed AWS certification exam. When I asked why he was so hesitant to try again, he said his company only reimbursed him for the exam fee if he passed, so he really didn’t want to risk another failure. No offense to our friendly competitor, but I remember thinking, “That’s a dumb policy.” While we didn’t make employees come out of pocket for failed exams, I wondered if our people were nonetheless hesitant to register for their next exam out of a fear of failure. Perhaps we hadn’t made it crystal clear that we not only give employees permission to fail, but we actively celebrate it.

When you fail, you are pushing up against your boundaries and uncovering where you are strong and, importantly, where you are not. So we made an announcement to all employees: simply register for your next AWS certification exam and we will give you a pair of Bose QuietComfort wireless headphones just for putting yourself out there. The only requirement was if you failed, you had to announce your failure publicly (and proudly) and you had to keep trying until you got over the hump. Within a few days, every single employee had registered for an exam.

That was a nice surprise, but what happened next blew me away. Over the following weeks and months many employees passed their tests and, inevitably, some failed. The outpouring of support for those that failed was beyond my wildest expectations. When people posted in Slack they had failed their test, the entire company essentially threw them a parade. But people did more than just offer party parrot emoji and words of encouragement, they offered private tutoring, links to their study notes, and articles/videos that had been particularly helpful for them. It was so inspiring to watch!

Eventually those that failed went on to pass to their exams and others too. The certification party bus has been picking up speed ever since, with many Privo engineers achieving all 5 core AWS certifications.

Bottom line: When you foster a culture that celebrates failure, employees invest in themselves without reserve. It’s great for employees, it’s great for your organization, and it’s great for your customers–it’s a win-win-win.

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