Fail, but do it smartly

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Fail, but do it smartly. 

“Embracing Failure”, and “The Learning Organisation” are currently the clichés of the business world. The Harvard Business Review, the NYT and The Economist have written extensively about it, and there are shelves full of books about it. One of the nicer ones is “Black Box Thinking,” written by Matthew Syed, a journalist at the Times.

Learning from mistakes is not new, nor is it a new management philosophy. Yet every day we encounter a stigmatizing attitude towards mistakes: there is an idea – not based on anything – that everyone should be immediately successful and that mistakes are failures that reflect negatively on the person that made them. Mistakes are bad for your reputation, for your self-esteem, and for your career. For that reason, they are constantly hidden, including in the use of language: we prefer to talk about ‘bad luck’, and ‘force majeure’, and doctors even call mistakes ‘complications.’

All our psychological strategies are aimed at preventing mistakes from being admitted. Often, those who make the mistakes are not even aware that they were wrong. Cognitive Dissonance (denying inappropriate information to justify behaviour), Confirmation Bias (searching for and selecting information that confirms your opinion), and Narrative Fallacy (adopting appropriate success stories for truth instead of looking at and testing them critically) ) are firmly ingrained in our thinking and functioning. 

No success without mistakes

There are plenty of examples of sectors where there is a strong and structural tendency to sweep mistakes under the carpet (such as healthcare or government). In other industries, there is a culture or regulation that uses reported errors to investigate and learn from the imperfections (such as aviation, or private equity). Ideally, what you would like is for mistakes to be seen as indispensable steps towards improvement, as is in science or the software industry. There we call it testing and nobody is surprised by it.

But the best examples come from sports. Who knows how many free kicks David Beckham shot before he got so good that they almost always go in, or how many times Michael Jordan missed before he became the best basketball player in the world? In companies, regardless of industry, we should strive for a culture and a process in which mistakes are systematically revealed, analysed and used to implement improvements, however small, rather than seeing them as a failure or a threat. All these small improvements make the company as a whole substantially better, and also considerably more fun to work in, because we can speak openly and honestly about everything. Test? Test, Test!

In an ideal world, we would test everything, or even consider everything as a test or experiement. There would then be no errors, only results. Everything you plan to change or do is measured, both “in real life” and in a control group. In an RCT (randomized control trial), you compare the results of an action, or of a change made, with the results of any other group, with which you do what you always did, or do the opposite of what you initially planned. This forces people to objectively assess the results and make improvements, and then test them once again. New website? Send part of the visitors to the new site and part to the old site and measure the conversions. In many cases, this is not possible and we will have to make do with the lessons we can learn from everything that does not have the desired result: our mistakes and failures. In a previous blog we wrote about the importance of rejuvenation  (this was in relation to digital strategies). Children continuously learn from their mistakes. “By trial and error” can be taken literally there and is a very effective method of learning to walk. In our companies, we can embrace that attitude. Below are seven tips that help you do that smartly and quickly.

  1. Make sharing mistakes the default

Make the difficult things simple, but not so simple that you force everyone to get everything right at once. The world is too complex for that. Create a culture where every activity and project is an experiment, if possible with an RCT, and avoid “The Blame Game”. Nothing is more deadly to progress than demotivation and the fear of failure, often recognizable by excuses beforehand.

  1. Start with the possible errors

In every plan (for strategy execution, projects, changes) take into account mistakes, obstacles and problems, and build in time to learn and repeat. Do a pre-mortem: imagine that what you have in mind failed dramatically and think about what it could have been. Then, adjust your plan accordingly.

  1. Focus on variables you can control

Failure can make us feel passive and helpless and make us believe that we will never succeed, no matter what we do or try. The chances of success can be significantly increased by maximum preparation and by collecting data that is already present and available. The variable ‘perseverance’ is also within your control. Dyson needed more than 5,000 prototypes to create a good vacuum cleaner. It was without a double the best.

  1. Learn from every mistake

This is difficult, because it is initially a painful exercise, which is often reluctantly participated in. We are used to looking forward, not back, and as we know, we prefer to talk about positive things rather than negative ones. Analyse every failed project, every lost tender, every dismissal of a good employee, without looking for the question of blame, but only to learn and improve. Just talking about successes is fun, but pointless.

  1. Think about formal structures 

A Friday Fail Fiesta, an annual ‘fail-report’ For everyone to see, which projects were the biggest flops. Make sure there is a structure to record all errors, for example by means of a pitch and master: Create a PITCH for each intended initiative.

  • Purpose – why was the initiative taken 
  • Intention – what was the desired outcome 
  • Task – what tasks/activities were undertaken for this purpose
  • Communication – how was it communicated 
  • Help – whose help was needed for this

And make a MASTER for every mistake

  • Mistake – what went wrong
  • Analysis – why did it go wrong, and how can we do it better
  •  Share – how are we going to communicate that with the team
  •  Teach – how are we going to share the lessons with others
  •  Eliminate – how are we going to ensure that the problem is solved
  •  Review & Repeat – try again
  1. Think about informal approaches and storytelling Dyson’s 5000 prototypes are a legend in the company, and stories of the failure of New Coke will be told at Coca-Cola for another 30 years.
  2. Look for patterns in failures, create processes.

Apply a systematic approach and focus on statistical patterns. Determine whether the reporting, learning and improvement approach works and make that approach part of the company’s DNA. Learn not only to improve, but also to fail faster next time. Look at decision-making processes and celebrate the failure. Set up a Heroic Failure award; NASA has a Lean Forward, Fail Smart Award; And the Tata Group has a Dare to Try Award. Make it tough to make mistakes and make it fun to learn from them, as Michael Jordan points out in the image above the article.

Do you want to know more about how you can help your company move forward by embracing mistakes? Contact us.

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