Structuring “ Failure ” for Organizational Success.


” Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly ” – John F Kennedy

Recently I was talking to a senior corporate leader in an informal gathering, and while discussing his strategy, he emphatically said “ Failure is not an option”.

Though he had good reasons to make that comment, it set me thinking on the role of failure in achieving larger or sustained success.

There are numerous stories ( and which are legends today ! )  of people like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney,  who failed miserably before seeing resounding success.

Organizations like TATA,  Google and many more are today  ‘celebrating failure’ or even awarding people for having tried but failed. But is it enough to just celebrate failure? What about the benefits?

I have read various experts  on how failure should be planned, so that we maximize our learning  from it and move forward towards larger success. But is it that simple?

Honestly,  I still see failure as an anathema in most organizations. No one likes it, as it is definitely seen as a path to self doubt,  loss of respect, demotions or even being fired. This attitude is all the more stronger in large corporates, where an employee sees oneself as a cog in the wheel and someone who is supposed to deliver time and again so as to justify her salary.

So how does a large organization bring in “ planned failure” to move to larger success? Is there a method to this madness?

For a leader who is part of a large organization and under pressure to deliver success every day, how does she  perceive failure and leverage it for our benefit? Some obvious challenges are :

  1. “ Hang the guilty “ : One of the common challenges is to delink the person from the failure. There is a tendency to identify the guilty ( could be a person, a team or even a whole unit) and relate the failure to that entity. Then take action against that entity and the organization moves on.
  2. “ Let’s move on “ : Secondly, failures are not analyzed as rigorously as they could be. Who wants to analyze a failed attempt? As claimed, there is a “seed of success” in every failure.  Is any effort made to identify it? If a team worked on a prospective client, or building a specific code and failed, do we  look at what really succeeded, what did we gain and what could we do differently to gain success?
  3. “ We have failed” : In organizations, these three words are equivalent to killing your career. Forget about saying them out loud, with confidence or pride. The top leadership has the responsibility of developing a culture of accepting failure and learning from it. As the story goes, when Alan Mulally moved to Ford, and asked his managers to color code failures,  he received none. After lot of persuasion, when he was shown a yellow code for a serious fault, he clapped and celebrated it, leading to significant change in the outlook of the organization towards failure.

Alexander Graham Bell discovered penicillin in a “ failed “ laboratory with non sterile conditions.  Bubble wrap was discovered as a failed wall paper,  Teflon® was discovered after a failed attempt to develop  a next generation refrigerant. The list goes on, and there would be numerous similar examples. How many such opportunities are missed every day in large organizations?

For organizations to truly benefit from the failures happening everyday , there may need  to be a structured process set in place.

The way I imagine, every significant failure could be brought to a “ Failure lab” as a precious specimen to be dissected and analyzed. A team of Failure experts could run through diagnostics which could include assessment of initial expectations, perceived success, efforts put in and reasons for labeling it a failure.

Most importantly, there would be an assessment of the “ hidden success” in that perceived loss, and how that could be leveraged for further gain.

If there is a robust process to analyze failure, organizations could also possibly launch ‘Failure projects’, which are truly ambitious and might fail in the conventional sense, but yield huge ‘hidden benefits’ in terms of organizational learning and talent development.

To take an example, an organization which is in the B2B space, might start work on a B2C product, offering its product through a totally new channel. Imagine that the organization labels it as a “ failure project” with the intention to gain learning and experience about the B2C space?  What are the benefits?

Firstly, the leadership would approach the project with a clear perspective to learn, modify and reinvent as they go forward, free of the baggage /stress to make it a success. Secondly, they would have the freedom to pull back if it is not really succeeding, instead of chasing losses. Thirdly, a detailed analysis of the process may throw up invaluable information about the organization’s  limitations, cultural issues, talent pool etc, Fourthly, with a flexible approach, they may even end up with a modified and successful version of the original idea, which would bring in revenues in the long term. ( 3M’s  Post its was the result of a failed attempt to create a super strong glue).

In today’s world, failure is inevitable and  will become more complex in the future. An inability to analyze and learn from these failures  is a huge wasted opportunity. Organizations that do not experiment,  don’t analyze their failures or inhibit culture of risk taking may curtail their own growth.

As this space  is developed, we may even have “ Failure consultants” who would offer the tools and expertise to help initiate probable failure projects, assess them  and maximize learning and benefits for future growth of the organization. This could evolve into a new area of specialization.

Any thoughts and ideas are welcome  !

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