Failure: It is all in the definition

The new business context requires L&D organizations to experiment, innovate and transform. However, this requires trying out new ways of structuring the learning organization, designing learning products, delivering learning and partnering with business. Often, L&D leaders shy away from introducing these big, bold new ideas. The key obstacle is that many mature organizations treat failure as a weakness. However, successful startups have adopted a different point of view. For them, failure is nothing more than an evidence based correction to an assumption- better to know sooner, rather than later.

Too often, L&D’s limited resources are misspent. As Peter Drucker has been quoted as saying, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” It is from this perspective that failure becomes a virtue. None of us likes to fail. Nevertheless, in the context of operating successfully in today’s business environment, not only is failure acceptable… it is required.

“Fail often. So, you can succeed sooner.”

– Tom Kelley, Ideo partner

Let us begin by acknowledging that experiments can be difficult in a large company. Unlike startups there is often little ability to take a let’s-try-some- things-and-see-what-sticks attitude. This can challenge any organization tasked with innovating within an established company. In times to come, we are hopeful that this limiting factor will lessen as more companies, of all sizes, recognize the need for increased innovation in all aspects of the business.

However, for now, L&D organizations in mature companies may continue to relate to failure with fear. Having worked so hard to build credibility, L&D leaders might consider failure as a step backwards. I strongly recommend that L&D leaders change their perspective on failure. By properly recognizing failures, L&D’s successes become even more powerful in generating executive, manager, and learner buy-in. Two keys to this are turning failures into learnings and being transparent.

When Viewed in the Right Light…

Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur now teaching entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Columbia. He has studied what he calls the stages of startup failure.

Stage 1: Shock and Surprise

Stage 2: Denial

Stage 3: Anger and Blame

Stage 4: Depression

Stage 5: Acceptance

Stage 6: Insight and Change

While failure for L&D is rarely as final as it is for startups, the stages remain relevant, and both startups and L&D must push to achieve stage 6 as quickly as possible. What others refer to as a ‘failure’ is better described as a ‘major lesson.’ This lesson is one that can only be learned by trying. L&D must turn its failures into learnings. This is the only way by which the odds of delivering unmistakable value next time improve. According to Nick Casado, a computer networking star who sold his startup for over a billion dollars, the true skill is “to learn to embrace failure — not only embrace failure, get good at it, and by that, I mean get back up, apply what you’ve learned, and hit reset.”

Show Your Scars

The final principle of handling failures well is to be transparent. This transparency extends to the L&D team, stakeholders, and even other learning professionals. For startups, this sharing of ‘major lessons’ has become part of the culture. CB Insights, a research firm “that helps corporations guess less and win more” has amassed and shared over 200 startups’ “post mortems” in the hope that startups in the future will make new mistakes, not repeat old ones.

L&D conferences are full of best practice case studies and chest thumping showcases. L&D leaders must participate in these conferences, not just to listen to others’ successes, but also to fearlessly acknowledge their own failures. How about seminars on “10 ways I screwed up our roll out” or “3 easy ways for upsetting your executive sponsor”.

Author: J.

Founder the One Fifty-Three Fifteen project

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