Failure and Agility – they go hand in hand

3rd June 2021

Anyone who says they haven’t failed is telling a little white lie if we are honest with ourselves. Have I failed at stuff?

Of course, I have… Many many times and sometimes I have felt bad for failing, but not always, and why should we beat ourselves up for failure. You won’t get far in life if you don’t fail, I think that’s a fair statement.

I wouldn’t say I have failed in a way that then led me to be hugely successful or become a wealthy person, such as Steve Jobs (if that is even a positive measure for failure), but I have learned from my mistakes and failures at times and other times I didn’t learn from the failure as quickly as I would have wanted to.

Failures like not packing my parachute correctly which resulted in me having to use my reserve chute (a stomach drop moment I did not want to repeat) or my short and limited breakdancing career when I was 14… I just didn’t have the moves to cut it. On my parachute failing, I got back up on the next lift and jumped again an hour later, because I learned from that failure and knew I had to be better at checking my equipment, and as they say, “Get back on the horse” as soon as possible.

According to the online Cambridge dictionary, failure is the fact of someone or something not succeeding:

The meeting was a complete/total failure.
I’m a bit of a failure at making (= I cannot make) cakes.
I feel such a failure (= so unsuccessful).
Their attempt to climb Everest ended in failure.
The whole project was doomed to failure right from the start (= it could never have succeeded).

Failure is often used with other emotive language. That does not help us being accepting of failure, but the biggest failure is surely not learning from the failure in the first place. This is when we can learn so much which we can make use of for the future.

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Imagine if there was no failure in life… no WD 40 to lubricate that rusty padlock (It took them 40 attempts to get their water displacing formula to work, but on the 40th attempt, they got it right in a big way); no Dyson hoover to clean the house with (Five years and 5,127 prototypes later, he had invented the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner) and no Harry Potter books to read or films to watch (It took an alleged thirteen tries for Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone to gain acceptance from a publisher).

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” – J.K. Rowling

History and life is littered with famous stories of failure and how in the end all came good, but failure is hard to take, especially as we grow and develop, and by the time we move into this complex business world, the fear of failure is stifling. We don’t want to show vulnerability and be criticised for our mistakes. Just think of that for a moment, criticised for mistakes. How on earth will we ever learn if we don’t make mistakes and learn from them.

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Back when we were hunter gathers, someone had to be the first to eat that red mushroom,
“No… you go….age before beauty”,
“No, honestly you look hungrier than I do, be my guest”
“Oh dear, it’s killed you, let’s not eat that again”.

Way back when, failure could be the difference between life and death, part of how we learned from each other and built on our behaviors.

Anyone who has young kids in their family knows that the failure is an essential part of their life, learning to crawl, walk, run, ride a bike, learn to read, and we openly accept that failure. So why does this seem to change when we enter our working life. Here, it seems harder to accept failure and many of us have this fear to try new things in case we do fail.

At CMC we are investing time and effort to really build our Agile and Business Agility service, not only to support the people we work with but more importantly to become an agile organisation so we are able to proactively navigate an increasingly uncertain world. This is not an overnight fix. It takes a lot of time and effort for people to really see the benefit of engaging in this. There can be a level of fear for people in engaging in this way and you must be willing to spend a lot of time and effort helping them to see the benefits. Agile thinking and working sit within the complex domain. A great framework to understand this is the Cynefin framework which is Dave Snowden’s work.

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As the diagram shows, when we are operating in the complex domain, we need to adapt to working in a way where we realise that knowing the relationship between cause and effect is only known in hindsight, we don’t know what we don’t know, so “pretending” we can make accurate predictions on the outcome are a fallacy. Here we are working in a very uncertain environment so must be willing to experiment and with experimentation comes failure. We need to probe the situation, sense what is taking place and then respond. Adopting safe to fail experiments mean we are accepting up front that’s things may well not work, but we will get some form of knowledge to take forward and build upon.

Conducting safe to fail experiments is essential here. As stated on the Cynefin.io wiki page. “The emphasis, then, is not on ensuring success or avoiding failure, but in allowing ideas that are not useful to fail in small, contained and tolerable ways”.

We know what happens when organisations and people stick to their guns, there are too many examples of organisations not willing to shift perspectives because failure can be seen as too costly, a strange paradox when you consider that not being willing to accept failure could ultimately lead to the end of some businesses.

I have been an avid listener to Elizabeth Days podcast “How to Fail”. Elizabeth speaks to people about failure that really brings it to life for me, it makes the benefits and difficulties real in a way that some people find hard to contemplate from a work perspective.

I want my kids to succeed, I want my friends and work colleagues to have a successful life, and I want my family to be a success, but there will be failure along the way, and that’s cool. Failure is nature’s way of telling you it just wasn’t meant to be, a free pass to have another go. Failure only really hurts if you learn nothing from it. I will leave you with this quote from Amy Edmondson who is best known for her pioneering work on psychological safety…

‘When facing an uncertain path forward, trying something that fails, then figuring out what works instead, is the very essence of good performance. Great performance, however, is trying something that fails, figuring out what works instead, and telling your colleagues all about it—about both the success and the failure.’ – Amy Edmondson

By Mick Brian, Change Consultant at CMC Partnership Consultancy Ltd