Four ways to create success from failure
In his new book "The Little Big Things", management uber-guru Tom Peters rants, once again, about the importance of trial and error in innovation. His conviction, held now for many years, is that innovation is a numbers game - the more things you try, the more likely you are to find something that will succeed. Of course, Peters wasn't the first to notice this. Thomas Eddison famously coined the phrase that "invention is 5% inspiration, and 95% perspiration".
However, as Eddison and Peters would both attest, the key to creating success out of failure is to learn from it: to tear it down and fully understand it, then to build on it, over and over, until something great appears.
Failure costs. It costs time, and usually it costs money, and to make it pay, it has to create some value. And there is value in failure, but only if it increases the overall chance of success, by providing some learning. But time and again, in businesses up and down the country, I see situations where this fails to happen.
In the last week, I've had two examples, with two different clients.
In the first, the client and I worked up a proposal for consolidating "softer" information to help improve leverage in negotiations. Then one of the team remembered that a system that was set up several years before, already had a facility to capture that type of information, and in fact, they had even used it for a while, but the usage dropped off. However, when I asked why, there was no answer. Nobody knew. It's easy to conjecture why it might have happened, but the fact is that a project that could have unlocked some big long-term value, had failed, and the opportunity had been thrown away with it, without so much as a backward glance.
Two days later I had a similar conversation with a different client, this time about the development of some innovative new services. As we stepped through the prioritisation, it turned out that one of the biggest opportunities had been developed as a trial several years before, but had fizzled out. Why did it fail? Noone was sure. It seems the trial team had some problems on the way, perhaps they didn't get enough focus, and ultimately people moved on.
The striking similarity is that in both instances, there was no understanding of the reasons for the the failures. In both cases, the value of the opportunities had continued to increase after the initial attempts, but ironically, in both cases, rather than getting the businesses closer to their goal, the failure of their first stab had actually moved them further away. Why?
They might not be pretty, but there are reasons why organisations fail to learn from failure, here are three of the most common:
1. People aren't committed to, and held to account for "making it happen" - maybe those carrying the baton have been asked to do the project as an add-on, or they simply aren't excited by the idea. Maybe there's a change of leadership or priority, and the project falls off the radar. Or maybe, when nobody's looking, those charged with delivery just quietly drop it and move onto something more interesting
2. People have no desire to face into uncomfortable challenges - often the reasons for failure lie within the organisation, but rather than challenge the institution or its leadership, it's easier to deflect attention, simply burying the bad news, and looking out for some good news to talk about instead
3. People don't want to be associated with failure - instead, if it looks like failure is a real possibility, many will abandon ship, often heaping blame on others, and adding to the overall stigma of failure
Ultimately all three reasons in the (far from exhaustive) list are to do with people: their commitment to deliver a change, and the consequences they can expect from failing to deliver it successfully first time.
For an organisation to avoid these outcomes, it needs to have four important qualities:
1. A tolerant and transparent, even celebratory view of failure (and what it means for the individuals concerned) as long as it creates valuable insights and motivates the next generation of trials
2. A clear, mental separation of means and ends, and an obsessive focus on ends - never confusing the failure of a discrete test, with the closing down of a strategic opportunity
3. A strong culture of responsibility, enthusiasm and passion for making things work, a culture that celebrates finding different ways to reach the destination, and creates heroes of Eddisonian proportions for those whose perspiration eventually pays off
4. A disciplined approach to understanding the root cause of failure, however uncomfortable it may be, and a leadership that is prepared to change, and unlearn everything it has learned, if it finds out that it's own way of working is creating the biggest barriers
How can you build these qualities in your organisation?
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