How to use failure to power your success
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How to use failure to power your success

Why you’ll want to use failure to power your success

Not everything you do in today’s complex world will succeed. This fact presents challenges for teams and for employees personally. This briefing draws together relevant recent research that explores the need for experimentation and innovation in complex contexts which have a high level of uncertainty. It will show you ways to use failure to power your success.

We find ourselves in an increasingly complex world. Organisations, in all sectors, need to grapple with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). These days, the elements at play in your context won’t necessarily interact in a predictable ‘cause and effect’ way. Approaches that worked before might not deliver the same results when you deploy them again, as circumstances shift and new challenges emerge. Ian Wilson (a ‘futurist’ and GE’s Director of Strategy for many years) wrote about this presciently years ago, “No amount of sophistication is going to allay the fact that all your knowledge is about the past and all your decisions are about the future.”

All this means that a linear, lock-step approach to planning and project management won’t work. Instead, we recommend to our clients a flexible way of operating that uses ‘safe to fail’ experiments or probes, and small ‘next adjacent’ steps. But these are not random launces into the blue. They are designed to be coherent i.e., each reflects a sound reason for believing this particular probe will have a positive impact. Each also has sensor mechanisms that will ensure you can detect success or failure quickly, enabling you to make small ‘more of/less of’ adjustments. It’s about taking small, next adjacent steps that help you move incrementally towards the outcomes you want.

However, it also means that not everything you do will succeed. This fact presents challenges for teams and for employees personally. This briefing draws together relevant recent research that explores the need for experimentation and innovation in complex contexts which have a high level of uncertainty.

On a personal level this can be challenging

We need to become comfortable with a certain amount of failure, if we want to learn new skills, experiment with new approaches, form new habits and succeed in this VUCA world. Think of a toddler learning to walk. A small child doesn’t just stand up and then skip across the room. There’s a lot of falling over and, most importantly, lots of trying again. In a similar way, your success in adopting a new way of doing something depends on your willingness to accept that you probably won’t be excellent at first. At the outset, your performance will likely be clumsy and clunky. You’ll falter and misstep before you achieve a state of flow.

For this reason, one way of becoming more comfortable with what’s involved in building a new skill is to fail in small steps. Failing small makes it easier to open up the path to learning and change. Doing something different feels less threatening when the cost of failure isn’t too high. Small steps and tiny habits underpin success in an uncertain world.

Another aspect of this concerns redefining failure to yourself. When failing feels synonymous with looking foolish, not meeting expectations or even feeling humiliated, then stress and anxiety can cause you to pull back from trying something new. A recent coaching client going after her first executive role felt almost paralysed by her fear of failing in her forthcoming meeting with the interview panel. This fear, she knew, might prevent her from putting her best foot forward.

The solution was to redefine failure. She stopped judging her performance as only about getting the job and began to see that reframing her forthcoming performance helped her to be open to signs of success, even small ones. For example, being able to give interesting answers to most or even all of the questions would be a useful metric, whether she secured a job offer or not. Shifting her mindset and redefining what constituted failure and success enabled her to approach the opportunity much more positively and enthusiastically.

Getting more comfortable with failing at times

Tim Ferris has an interesting TED talk on this topic where he suggests making a fear list (Why you should define your fears instead of your goals, Tim Ferris, Ted Talk 2017). By this he means a checklist of what you’re afraid to do and what you think will happen if you perform poorly. Approaches like this can help you get more comfortable with experimenting, moving out of your comfort zone and getting the most out of an experience, whatever the outcome – including some degree of failure.

This is often called self-compassion. People who give themselves a break tend to demonstrate three particular behaviours. They are kind, not judgemental, about their mistakes and their failures. They recognise that failure is actually a normal human experience, especially when faced with complexity and uncertainty. Finally, they take a balanced approach, allowing themselves to feel bad without letting negative emotions swamp them.

Carol Dweck sees these as features of a growth mindset, one where you believe you can improve through dedication, commitment and hard work. In this way, you can ‘fail towards success’, approaching your inevitable mistakes and intermittent failures in a balanced and even strategic way. You’ll become more at ease with our VUCA world along the way.

You don’t necessarily learn from success!

Success can even contribute to failure by blocking learning on the part of individuals, teams and even at the level of the organisation as a whole. The issue is that, when you succeed, there can be a tendency to give too much credit to your talent or your strategy, minimising the impact of external factors and random events. Thus, learning from success can be a significant challenge. You can be overconfident and start to believe you don’t need to change anything. All you need to do is just ‘rinse and repeat’ and this will lead to even more success!

Instead, investigating the causes of your current good performance can help you to formulate the tough questions that will monitor current assumptions and challenge current insights. If you can continually examine your biases, you’ll be better placed to avoid current success slipping unthinkingly into eventual failure.

To test this point, Gary Pisano and his team at Harvard set up an experiment. Participants in the study were asked to work on two decision-making problems. The problems were designed so that learning from the experience of problem one would help them to solve problem two.

After submitting their solutions to the first problem, participants were informed about whether they had succeeded or not. They were then allowed time for reflection before the second problem was introduced. The researchers found that those who were told they had succeeded with problem one, spent significantly less time reflecting than those who had been told they had failed. It turned out that those who’d succeeded in round one neglected to ask ‘why?’ They simply assumed that their initial success would continue, despite knowing that the next problem wouldn’t be the same.

Pisano’s conclusion was ‘yes’ celebrate your success but also examine it. He recommends a tool UGM has long used with our clients. It’s a systematic regular project review using a specific format. It’s called an After-Action Review. What did we set out to do? What actually happened? Why did that happen? What have we learned for next time?

Increasing your ‘return on failure’

Understanding the reasons behind success can bring to light important lessons that help to minimise future failure. Martine Haas of Wharton takes this point further. In several of her books and articles, she argues that, though most leaders know, at an intellectual level, that they’re going to have to tolerate some failures as they pursue innovation and growth, most still try to avoid it.

The trouble is that organisational systems and risk control procedures can, even unintentionally, promote predictability and reward compliance, such that team members do all they can to avoid the regular small failures that we know are an integral part of innovation and learning – especially in complex contexts.

Mistakes are the inevitable consequence of trying something new. In fact, low rates of failure may signal a need to encourage more openness to judicious risk and intelligent experiment.
Haas recommends extracting maximum value from even an unsuccessful project by focusing on increasing what she calls your ‘return on failure’. Regularly review each team’s efforts and probe for insights about stakeholders, trends, approaches and skills. What are the key insights and takeaways for the business?

When senior leaders regularly talk about their failures and share lessons with all employees non-defensively, it helps to build a culture of trust and goodwill. This, in turn encourages future initiatives which involve some risk and some innovation. In this way, you can use small losses to support wins over time and build a culture of experimentation in your business.

Failing ‘well’ and psychological safety

Of course, none of this is possible if your organisation is characterised by blame, punishment and avoidance. Amy Edmondson’s important work on psychological safety highlights that successful learning from failure isn’t simple. It requires context-specific strategies, if you are to offset the fact that we’ve all been programmed at an early age to think that failure is bad.

Edmondson’s forthcoming book (‘The right kind of wrong: the science of failing well’) examines how leaders can build the kind of psychologically safe environments where employees feel they can spot existing failures quickly and speak up about them immediately. Her research highlights the vital need to promote blameless reporting, where everyone at all levels is involved in detecting and analysing failures, so that intelligent experiments can be nurtured.

Edmondson has developed a protocol to help teams recognise the inevitability of failure in today’s complex contexts. Those who can catch, correct, adjust and learn from failure will, she argues, succeed. In contrast, those who, to use her words, ‘wallow in the blame game’, will not.
Edmondson’s questions to support pilot projects that might yield intelligent failures (and, therefore, valuable information) are listed below. The problem is that classic management paradigms tend to fall short in today’s uncertain and complex world. The old approaches assumed predictability and stressed efficiency. This meant that all too often failure was seen as a sign of incompetence. To rise to the challenge of complexity, we recommend assuming uncertainty, emphasising speed and encouraging ‘safe to fail’ experiments. In other words, smart failing is essential for project success.


Tips for ‘failing well’

Unfortunately, pilot projects or ‘safe to fail’ experiments are not always designed to produce valuable information. To know if you’ve designed a genuinely useful pilot, consider whether your team members can answer ‘yes’ to the following questions.

  1. Is the pilot being tested under typical circumstances (including all the complex variables that are part of your reality), rather than optimal conditions?
  2. Do the employees, customers and resources represent your organisation’s real operating environment, as it is every day?
  3. Is the goal of the pilot or experiment to learn as much as possible, rather than to demonstrate the value of an already determined proposition?
  4. Is the goal of learning well understood by all team members and by senior managers?
  5. Is it clear that compensation and performance reviews will not be based on a successful outcome of this pilot?
  6. Were explicit changes made, as a result of what you learned from the pilot i.e., the learning aim was genuine and the new insights swiftly applied?

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