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Embracing 'Failure'

In a recent Kaleidoscope blog titled “keep calm and keep changing,” India spoke about the importance and the value of failing, failing hard, failing fast - and then being brave enough to share those learnings with your team.

The intention? To prevent the same failures from happening again, as well as to cultivate an environment that both accepts and embraces failure.

Albert Einstein once said, “a person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new” - and some of the biggest giants in modern industry such as Google, Amazon and Coca-Cola encourage their teams to take risks, to test, fail, to make mistakes and to learn from them. Indeed, all of modern science is based on the principle of experimentation, which, by definition, involves a lot of things not working until you find the one thing that does.

Harvard University calls this Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), and it is now a major new field in the global academy. The basic process: try, learn, innovate, adapt. In other words, keep trying things, even if they don’t work. Still, most of us consciously, and subconsciously, steer as far away as possible from making these mistakes.

A few years ago, I went to Israel, which is known in innovation and tech circles as the 'startup nation' as a result of the incredible number of world-class businesses founded and launched there. During our trip, we happened to meet with the founder of one of the largest venture capital investment firms in the world, who told us about some of the characteristics that he looked for when determining whether or not to invest in a particular business. His insight made a lasting impression on me ....

He said that no matter how impressive the entrepreneur may seem, he would be reluctant to invest unless that person had experienced business failure in the past. Having experienced and learned from failure were almost as the top of his list of investment criteria. According to this investor, the life experience gained from having poured oneself into something only for it not to work out, is critical to the success of all later efforts.

Within our Kaleidoscope team, we’ve always tried to build and create a safe space to experiment, even if those experiments don’t work. This doesn’t mean that we encourage our team to make silly decisions, or that we’re “okay” with recklessness.

It means we’re a team who trust one another, we’re always working hard towards making the best possible decisions for the business, and most importantly for our clients, we also recognise that if we want to be disruptors, big thinkers and innovators, we’re going to bump our heads, or even wipe right out at some point along the way - and that’s ok.

The most important part of those bumps are the learnings, we’re either going to take the learnings to take a huge leap forward, or we’re going to use them to steer away from the direction we were going in when we made that mistake. Either way, it’s a win!

Once I began to dig a bit deeper on the topic of embracing failure, I came across a great piece by Danielle Sutton from Acumen Academy, called “Human Centered Design: How to Embrace failing fast.” Click HERE to read the article.

It speaks about taking the first step in realising and reframing failure as a friend and not a foe, and then highlights 5 important steps that businesses and individuals can practice to help them to embrace failure as a path to success:

1. Expect that failure is inevitable

Embracing this concept alone can transform the way in which challenges are approached. It helps us to recognise that we can’t skip the “beginner stages” of learning and becoming proficient in a new skill.

2. Determining failure and success is not black and white; it’s how you interpret it.

Our reaction to a result or outcome is based on our interpretation of success.

3. The path of failing is a spiral, not a linear path towards a dead end.

Lots of small failures that gradually get fewer and fewer, as we get closer toward achieving the central goal.

4. Failure is wisdom.

5. Failure pushes the limit of possibility.

Sutton concludes that “the sooner you embed a culture of smart failure into your workflows and teams, the faster you will design useful solutions for the people you serve”. This, then, is the key lesson. It is not just saying experimentation is acceptable. It’s about making team members feel completely comfortable to try new things even if they have little chance of working.

As leaders in our teams, it is up to us to cultivate a workplace culture where experimentation, even if unsuccessful, is encouraged and embraced.


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