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Building Future Fit Teams: When to Embrace Failure

We know it’s a trend, we’ve all said it, and it really does sound so cool…
Fail Fast

How many times in the last week have you said this “F-Word”?

Increasingly corporate culture is learning to embrace failure, we are getting over our fears, recalibrating our perfectionism. These days we understand that failure is imperative to our success.

Most of us will have seen the Michael Jordan video “first learn to fail” in which he recognises that he is successful because he has failed so many times. “I’ve failed over and over again in my life and that’s exactly why I succeed”–gQ2AvJY
Jordan Quote

From a growth perspective there is nothing like the experience of an epic fail. Failure is the ultimate teacher. Learning to get up again once life has knocked you down builds incredible resilience. It is those of us that recognise that “Failure is an event, not a person” (Zig Ziglar) that go on to achieve success.

As organisations we need to learn that this kind of robustness cannot be taught through an e-learning module. It requires us to give people many opportunities to engage in messy experiential immersive learning, i.e. to fail. This recognition of the importance of failure should extend to recruiting or promoting. When we are searching for suitable candidates we should look to those who have experienced at least one epic fail.  As opposed to only looking for those who have exemplary academic records. In fact, success as Churchill put it “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

It is only when things go wrong that we grow and learn, learning or at least transformational learning only happens at the edge of our comfort zone. Ask yourself what have I or my team failed at lately? If the answer is nothing, face it you’ve stopped learning.

What often holds us back from putting ourselves out there is that we do not know how or when to transition out of what Ron Ashkenas calls “execution mentality” and into “innovation mentality.” He defines these two modes of thinking as follows, “Being in execution mode means that standard operating practices have been developed and need to be implemented with as little deviation as possible. Sure there can be improvements made, but these have to be done carefully and explicitly, under controlled conditions, so that the basic operations are not disrupted. As such, failure needs to be minimized or eliminated.

Innovation mode, on the other hand, is when standards still don’t exist and best practices are still being discovered and tested. In this kind of situation, it’s important to try out new ideas, formats, and processes – and allow room for plenty of failure – in order to learn what works and what does not.”  (Ron Ashkenas:

It is clear, from Ashkenas description that this is why we struggle so with innovation. This is especially true for our older more traditional organisations. They struggle because they approach every situation or transformational project from “execution mentality.”

It’s much easier to embrace failure when you are a sleek start up with not much to lose. But when you are a 100-year-old bank that free spirit is more tempered and rightly so. The term failing fast sounds really sexy but we need to acknowledge that most of us don’t work for some super sexy start-up based out of Silicon Valley or our own local version in Stellenbosch or Maboneng precinct. We have to face reality and realise that most of us form part of older, bigger, or heavier organisations. The kinds that can’t always afford to be seen as failing even if it is fast.

Having a James Formby or a Ben Kruger stand up and tell us about their risk embracing nature and their latest epic failures might make me reconsider who I bank with. Yet, at the same time I demand and expect Innovation.

So I think the solution as always lies somewhere in the middle. Especially for the bigger and older organisations. The goal should therefore be to strike the right balance between Innovation and Execution. The trick here is not to confuse the two.

My challenge to you is to spend time thinking about where you personally, and your team needs to be in execution mode i.e. following those standard operating practices that ensure successful delivery and where you can step into an innovation mode i.e where standards and expectations on delivery still don’t exist, and find something that you can fail at repeatedly until you achieve success!

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