Tell me about the last time you failed

On the whole, expect to fail. Do it quickly. Learn. Move on. Perhaps even to something different. That’s the new formula. And it makes sense to have new formulas in light of the fact that the business models we used yesterday no longer seem to produce the results we need for tomorrow. The rules of the game have changed. And it happened while we were sleeping. It’s called the World After Midnight (WAM).

“Most of us spend our lives acting rationally in response to a world we recognise and understand but which no longer exists.” Eddie Obeng on the WAM

 

Smart FailureThis new formula for success goes by the name of rapid fire, rapid fail. Obeng calls it Smart Failure. Failing fast and often is the best approach and the key to success in many areas of business, says a Mu Sigma Report (a decision and analytics firm). Take it from the software industry, and as an approach echoed by engineers working in the pharmaceuticals, material sciences and automotive industries. To develop a successful product, try out many ideas through successive experimentations. Technology can enable that. Then learn from each small failure, so that your end product is better. Failure isn’t bad for business, it leads to something else happening.

‘When you view building a business as a series of experiments, you start to see failure as an inevitable step in the process.” Andrew Filev, CEO and founder of Wrike, a software firm in Mountain View, California.

But can we widen this approach to other working contexts? Are we ready to fail? And are customers and brands ready for that too?

In business we have spent a lot of time trying to reach ‘perfect first time.’ For years we have aimed to refine and control, to measure and predict, to reduce margin for error, streamline. We have thoroughly believed and put full effort into making our work, outputs and our futures more knowable, comfortable and sure.

Yet rapid change and technological evolution (which we all drive) is painting a future quite different from this. We can’t predict with too much accuracy. Now our task is to accept that and to learn to work with iterations of a future. We have to be committed to the experiment without being sure of success at the end, or what exactly the success might be. We need to be able to try something new that nobody has done, and get it wrong. We haven’t let go to that quite yet. We ask people to be creative and innovative, but in our organisations we still have a relatively poor tolerance for getting it wrong. We see it and often feel it as incompetence.

When we do start to let go, it will show in the people we look for – we’ll want people who know how to fail and can learn from it. In interviews, we’ll ask: “Tell me about the last time you failed?” or “How often do you fail?” At regular meetings we might ask “What are you learning from your failures?” or “How many failures have you had so far?” We might even ask future employers: “How does your organisation fail?”

Sound far-fetched? Maybe it’s the language we’re using. It seems somewhat black and white for the complexity of our world.

Some worldview adjustments on failure will emerge over time. Failing may just become smart.

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