Failure: fear or opportunity for the BRM?

Question: Don’t be afraid of failure. Will the C-suite forgive us?

There have been several phrases that have become commonly banded around especially in teams that believe they’re either agile (lower or uppercase A) or pushing for innovation within their organisation.

Those that come to mind include:

Go fast and break things
Better to ask for forgiveness than permission
Fail Fast

The origins of each, like many things, is a long debate and behind each is an attitude that has been responsible for bringing about significant change, or setting the course of direction particularly for young start-up organisations.

The challenge for me, and indeed for a Business Relationship Manager, is that they are phrases that are banded around without always having a lot of substance behind them. If you’re a well-funded VC-backed start-up then the opportunity to be highly experimental is there but that doesn’t translate into many established enterprises.

As with other posts, this is written in response to a statement — don’t be afraid of failure and a question — will the C-suite forgive us. It is worth exploring both of these, in turn, to understand what the opportunity (and the risk) for the BRM is.

Being afraid of failure, indeed being afraid of anything, isn’t a good place to be. If we’re afraid then we will take the safe options, not ask the curious questions that push the boundaries and as a consequence, the extent of change is likely to be marginal.

This isn’t necessarily bad — I remember working with the investment arm of one of the major financial institutions and they explained how they tread a narrow line of not wanting to surprise the stock market. If you surprise the market with positive news then it raises concern that you’re also capable of bad surprises. The market wanted to have confidence that there was control.

What matters more is that you make decisions only after having pushed the boundary a far as you can do so. A compromise is only a bad option when it isn’t a conscious decision. Being afraid of failure needs to be less about emotional response and more about making a conscious decision to do something know what the possible consequences could be if it doesn’t pay off. I’ve deliberately put vagueness into that sentence because just like we can’t be confident of what the outcome of success will be we can also only guess what the negative could be. The worst-case scenario will be losing everything but ultimately that applies to any decisions so it isn’t helpful to use in our evaluation.


Turning to the question: “Will the C-Suite forgive us?” says more about the relationship between the BRM and the C-Suite than anything else. In a hierarchical organisation with cathedral management then asking permission of those above you leads to a culture where this question is relevant.

It does, however, imply that there is a gap between the actions of the BRM (and indeed any part of the organisation involved in delivery) and those at the top of the organisation — those seeking to steer and captain the ship.

The role of the BRM isn’t to make decisions or ask for permission to do things, rather the focus should be on stimulating, surfacing, and shaping the demand across the organisation.

Once that has been done then the decision-making lies with others.

A BRM needs to be clear about the purpose of their role and the relationships that they curate. As has been covered in other questions, the desire to be the hero who solves things is a temptation that we can all fall in to. In my mind, the focus of the BRM should much more be on the facilitation of conversations and the exploration of possible futures rather than fixing things.

The relationships that are built enable better outcomes to be achieved together. The BRM may be the instigator of change and they may be the catalyst for bringing about innovation but the ownership and decision making should always sit elsewhere.

With those things in mind, I do believe that there are things that the BRM can do to help with bringing about this mindset shift and allowing us to move from a place of fear to one of opportunity when we think about innovation and disrupting the future.

My recommendations would be:

  • Work with your stakeholders to be clear about what the success criteria are going to be and how and when they will be evaluated. As this will likely be expressed as a lagging indicator (possible to evaluate after the event) you need to push for leading indicators (things in the here and now which are immediately visible) to be defined.

Ensure that it is possible to stop by making the default stopping at the stage gateway not how do we continue. This is critical to failing fast, but the focus isn’t about failing it is about being in a place as an organisation where when the facts change so does the decision.

  • The Discovery, Alpha, Beta and Live process that the Government Digital Service instigate sets the framework for this, but what I observed happening is the focus was only on getting to the next stage whereas it may have been more valuable to argue against a decision to stop.
  • Don’t start anything until you feel like you made difficult decisions. This is the same as when developing strategy — there should be things you say “no” to that you really want to do just as much as you say “yes” to something. If you don’t feel like you’ve turned down a really good option then you haven’t considered the options fully and so are unconsciously compromising.

One final comment is that “fast” isn’t the same in every setting. If you normally take five years to develop something then fast may still be two years. Fast action is about building confidence in the path you’re taking because ultimately the more we learn the “less-wrong” be become. You only know you’re right afterward.

To sum up:

Failure isn’t the BRM’s responsibility. Focus on creating the space for conversations to take place which means that the focus is on opportunity not restrained by fear.

Do this by:

  • Leading indicators that point towards an outcome being successfully achieved
  • Plan to stop unless the evidence shows you must carry on. If stopping is the default then it will be easier.
  • Make difficult decisions not to do things. By ensuring difficult decisions are being made to not do things before agreeing to proceed you are consciously compromising.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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