Friday, 22 February 2013

Success stops learning – fail fast, fall forward: celebrate failure

The key to competitive advantage in changing and deeply uncertain times is to discover new "right answers" and get them to market first. Previous answers won’t do. No one, not even the boss!, knows what the new answers are. We have to find out by experimenting together and learning fast from failures. 

That may make simple sense, but doing it is hard because failure is typically not allowed. We know that if we want to be successful we have to look successful; associate with winners not losers. Failing is losing. Success is winning.

Bosses and teachers are expected to know the answers. Subordinates and students are rewarded for doing what bosses and teachers want. To question the boss’s answer is not a good career move. With some bosses, it’s OK to question provided you already have a convincing alternative answer. Some bosses try to look like they know by pinching subordinates’ answers for their own and taking the credit. That’s how they got to be bosses. "Everyone knows" that’s how promotion works.

The result of this emphasis on success and knowing is that organisations and individuals stop learning; thinking happens in interminable closed loops; workforces become cynically compliant and/or aggressively self-serving.  

How do we break that deadly loop? The answer seems to be in the process of deliberately celebrating failure.

For instance, a Canadian Engineering NGO, Engineers Without Borders, is an organisation that seems to have broken the loop with a process called The Failure Report. Of course they didn’t get it right straight off. They failed plenty along the way. Basically it’s about open admission and shared reflection on failures.

What they learned* is:  
  1. The Failure Report is a dynamic tool for learning but the real power is its ability to shift organizational cultures.
  2. It is absolutely critical to have buy-in and support from the highest levels of management - the boss must risk reporting failure too.
  3. Understand your organization's unique failure foundations – identify and actively remove the blockages to people speaking openly about failure.
  4. Decouple ego from activity - maximise and acknowledge learning from failure so that ego can remain intact though failure
  5. Tell stories but don’t paraphrase them into simple lessons for others - tell them in full and in context and leave discussion and interpretation to individuals and groups. (I just failed that by posting this list*)
  6.  Go big or go home. No sugar-coating allowed - be dedicated to honesty and humility and deal with the elephants in the room.
*For the full story click here.


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