Falling is not failing: It is a path of knowledge and the means to triumph.
The case for why businesses need to embrace a culture of failure, rather than hide from it at all costs.
Business language is the language of victory: ‘beating’ the competition, ‘winning’ new customers, innovation ‘success’ stories. There is the talk of ‘fail fast’ and ‘successful pivoting’, but we know all too well that in most corporations people cling to rising stars, whilst simultaneously jettisoning programmes that have even the smallest whiff of failure. Why? The fear of reputational harm through association.
In short, failure is a toxic commodity.
But the consequence of this is to create a culture of siloed thinking, of repeating mistakes, and of failed innovations. Look at ROCE as the key financial bellwether of companies that fail to embrace failure. They make big investments that lead to big failures, often with a sea change of personnel in the organisation and a ‘clean slate’ restart… only for the pattern to happen again within the next 2 -3 years.
The fallacy of failure
Business success is like a mountain – a never-ending mountain to climb. And one where the path is unknown. And yet, we can act as if the path is certain, and the success is assured. We want to hear about success, in part because we have other things to think about (and don’t want to be concerned that there is a risk on the project), but also because we know our time is needed on projects that are actually in distress. We leverage the career ambitions of those who work for us to bring that success story… because who wants to be associated with failure right?
In that sense, we are coaching an environment where we sanitise the truth, airbrushing the reality that we actually learn through trying, failing, resetting, and trying again. Think about learning a new language, or getting in shape, or studying for a new vocation, or a baby learning to stand up. We try, we fail, we learn the lesson, and try again.
Unless we embrace the truth that failure is knowledge, we repeat the cycle that reinforces siloed working, hidden failures, and myopia which means history continually repeats itself.
Falling is not failure
This isn’t how high-performance teams work. They aim for marginal, incremental gains. They show everything – from every success and every failure. Knowledge is gained through failure. It is the scientific method. And it is shared so others can learn, and that learning is institutionalised over time to ensure advancing corporate intelligence.
Falling is taking a step back. It is exploring a path forward, identifying it isn’t the right one, and falling back to a solid point from which to re-set, and move forward.
As Winston Churchill said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts, the experience of having walked down many paths before.”
That is what companies are failing to leverage: Their scale, knowledge, and combined learnings are hidden, filed, and forgotten as their human capital exits the building.
What if a company that worked in e.g. the baby industry combined the knowledge of every mother’s journey into one overarching roadmap of parenting? What if a financial institution mapped the financial journey of every one of its customers over time, using that to inform its product offering? And what if this learning was applied globally, as a ‘thinking partner’ to all in the company considering how to innovate and improve their performance, with the actions they took – success or failure – enriching the data set and improving the knowledge base?
Success is not final. Failure is certainly not fatal. And it is pure stupidity to walk down a path that has already been trodden without having the benefit of the experience to inform your decision-making.
Sadly that is a common outcome of the failure fallacy.
Why falls need to be celebrated.
Falling at a hurdle happens all the time. Clearly, the goal is to overcome these hurdles, but this isn’t always the case. The aim should be to identify, manage, and mitigate risks. The better this process works, usually the smoother the project goes.
But the ambition should be to ensure learning happens continuously, updating the data set of a company’s operating system, and enriching their knowledge and decision-making.
A commonly understood example of this principle is ‘marginal gains’. Sir Dave Brailsford applied this philosophy to British cycling and played a significant role in the success of British cyclists in international competitions. Brailsford believed that by making numerous small improvements in various aspects of cycling (training, nutrition, equipment, etc.), they could achieve significant overall performance enhancements. This approach garnered widespread recognition and has been applied in various fields within business triggering Lean and Six Sigma methods, DevOps, iterative innovation, tech and software development, etc.
The key point here though, is that it is now paramount to record not just the gains, but the failures as well. Without this, we rely on human capital and leadership to ‘remember’ the past path. And should they leave, the organisation is left stranded to repeat old mistakes.
To do this, project teams should spend as much time debriefing on experimentation that resulted in failure as they do celebrating the successes. This needs to be quick, documented, and integrated into the overall dataset of operational learnings.
How to embrace a falling culture
- Set clear OKRs – at every step, determine what the objective is and the key result you want to see.
- Set hypotheses, test, and monitor success or failure. Follow the data. A failure in approach is a lesson – it is a positive outcome, just like climbing a mountain or a baby learning how to stand.
- If the outcome isn’t achieved, don’t change the objective, change the approach. Capture the learning through documentation
- Revert back one step, reassess, and develop a new approach.
- Create organisational memory – capture the learnings (failure and success) in an overarching data mart so that it is addressable to the organisation in the future. Setting up this model is something increasingly achievable for businesses, with legal institutions leading the way in this space.
- Democratise the learnings – connect the data mart to a gated LLM, so that your teams can have access to the collective learning of the organisation. Present this in a way that can be accessed, and update policies and working processes to ensure accessing and learning from this data set is part of each decision-making process.
- Create a culture of openness to learning, falling, and finding a success path. This is the key. Technology, and Processes, only work when People embrace change and are willing to try things in new ways.
How we are supporting our clients to improve
We have a number of initiatives underway with clients that include:
- LLMs to connect disparate data within the organisation – so that “if we only knew what we know” becomes a thing of the past.
- Integration and interaction layers to democratise that information.
- Cumulative knowledge gathering to inform Playbooks and improve strategy and execution
- Coaching a ‘culture of falling’ to move forwards.
If you’d like to know more about any of these initiatives, contact our Senior Partner Doug Killick.