Celebrating failure more important than success

Celebrating failure more important than success

What do the General Electric Co, Virgin Atlantic, Abraham Lincoln and tail-end batsmen have in common?  Their attitude to failure. For most of us ‘Failure’ is associated with ‘Unacceptable’.

It’s what we’ve been taught right from our school days, a mindset that prevents us from exploring interests and activities that we suspect we may not be good at, and compels us to stick to tried and true methods that are believed to guarantee success. We’re so caught up in our performance driven approach that we ‘fail’ to focus on learning. It’s a mindset that we risk passing on to the teams that we work with and to the next generation.

In 2000 Virgin Atlantic spent $67 million to create new sleeper seats for its first class passengers; the seats were not nearly as comfortable as a competing airline’s and were considered a failure. Surprisingly the company invested a further $127 million to redesign the seating, a risk that help them design what they called the upper-class suite.
This helped them significantly improve their hold of the air travel business class market share.

Abraham Lincoln encountered defeat in several legislature elections, faced failure of a business attempt and a nervous breakdown, before rising to be the president on the United States of America.

As for tail-end batsmen, we’ve seen them swing, miss and escape being clean bowled by hair, only to swing again for a glorious game winning six, time and time again.
What sets them apart is the unwillingness to let failure stop them from making further attempts and more importantly the willingness to make that first attempt knowing that they might very well fail.

In today’s competitive environment every organisation, team and student is striving to be to be the expert in their arena, and to achieve grand success.

What some of the most innovative and successful organisations and individuals have proved time and again, is that success and expertise come from learning and experimentation, a path that is more often than not, lined with a long list of failures.
Several products that we today take for granted were developed by a process of through experimentation and repeated failures. 
 
Thomas Edison failed 10,000 times before he invented the light bulb; Dr John Harvey Kellogg invented corn flakes as a result of a failed attempt to salvage a ruined batch of wheat cereal; bright yellow post-its would have never been invented but for Dr Spencer Silver failed attempts to market  his low-tack, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive for over five years; and the chemical phosphorus, today widely used in several industries was first isolated by an alchemist who failed in his attempts to extract gold from urine, but came across a glow in the dark white powder in the process.

Almost every technology that we are familiar with today evolved from a long series of failed models that eventually led to a successful one. Apple released a PDA called Apple Newton way back in1993, a device that failed miserably with consumers.

What very few realise is that several of its features were the basis for today’s smartphones; in fact the Newton is a little know precursor that the iPhone was modeled on.

Globally technology firms focusing on failing their way towards great products; they are breaking the old mindset and creating a culture of not just embracing failure but celebrating it. In fact the more frequently you fail, the more likely you are to stumble onto an approach that is bang on.

So how does one go about breaking the ‘anti-fail’ mindset in our teams? The first is to help teammates understand that ‘failure’ is not a bad thing, that early stage and intelligent failures teach us a whole lot about our design process and our customers’ needs.

The second is to create a failure friendly environment.

If we’re expecting teammates to step out of the box and go beyond, we have to ensure to cushion their fall when they fail. Celebrate every breakdown because it means that you’re closer to a breakthrough.

 Thirdly, in addition to encouraging risks, it’s crucial to announce mistakes and what the team has learned from them. A failure isn’t a failure unless you fail to derive a valuable insight form it. Acknowledging failure can at times be extremely difficult, but the learnings prove to be valuable in the long run.

In February 2003, NASA’s space shuttle Columbia carrying Kalpana Chawla and six other crew members disintegrated during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. Immediately after NASA began to investigate the cause and released a report in August 2003 stressing the need for drastic changes to the space program, one that have prevented future tragedies.

Most often, technology companies face the following barriers towards experimentation: extremely complex processes that make it hard to identify failure and are instead written off as an anomaly in the system that can be fixed, rather than a major area of concern.
Today companies such as GE proactively seek data and feedback that will help them identify failures better serve their customers. They receive over 3 million customer calls each year that help them understand where they have failed.

 Others celebrate failure with awards, recognising employees who helped the organisation realise that an approach or product just won’t work. Another challenge is the lack of skill to extract significant learnings from mistakes.

Training programs in techniques for systematic analysis of complex data and group forums that listen, discuss and make further inquiries into a failure are the key to helping teams derive valuable insights.

Yet another barrier is the lack understanding of experimental design. Helping teammates and developers design meaningful experiments is of the utmost importance.

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, conducted an experiment in the 1980s by institution of the policy of "reform and opening” in Shenzhen, a city in the south of China.

Prior to the Deng Xiaoping administration, China was a wreck; with wide spread poverty and starvation. In his experiment, Deng Xiaoping figuratively built a wall around Shenzhen, while the rest of the country ran on the rules of the traditional communist economy, Shenzhen had free market rules and allowed foreign investment.

Today Shenzhen is among the most vibrant metropolitan cities in the world, and the Chinese economic miracle was born out of the experiment in Shenzhen.

Leadership by experiment is not just better for a company it’s also better for its people.A culture of rapid experimentation, which is the essence of leadership, helps an organisation embrace failure and enables its people to invent the future.

(The author is Vice-President, India Development Center, Intuit India)

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