Celebrating Failure

Jul 23, 2019 • FeaturesManagementJann Van VeenmoreMomentumMotivation

“Fail-fast, learn fast,” does not really work to improve (service) innovation or agility. Individuals, teams and organisations fail when they did not do what they should have done. So, goal-oriented actions and task, whether it is execution, learning, exploring or driving change. The paralysing fear to fail comes from too much emphasis on the end results alone. Jan Van Veen, Founder, moreMomentum explains more.

We see increasing attention for the way to manage and lead organisations and teams and to build confidence to innovate and change in a rapidly changing world. The widespread fear to fail has a paralysing effect which hinders sustainable change, innovation and improvements.

To reduce this fear to fail, the idea has emerged that it is okay to fail:
• We should ‘Fail fast, learn fast’;
• ‘Failure is an option’;
• We should organise ‘Failure celebration nights’.

However, in practice I see many people finding it difficult to really embrace these concepts wholeheartedly. In the end, failure is a failure, it doesn’t feel right and by nature is something you try to avoid. It will not feel okay fail really, whatever we say about failure and how much we celebrate failures.

In some cultures, this is stronger than others. Besides that, most industries and companies experience increasing pressure on performance. So, should we take it easy when performance is behind expectation?

I fully agree with the point that many companies suffer from the paralysing effect of the fear to fail. However, I am afraid we are missing the point and do not get the right balance between accountability on the one hand and confidence to perform, learn, explore and change on the other hand.

Learning From Young Ambitious Athletes
I have the pleasure of being involved in coaching young and ambitious judokas who have a dream of participating at the Olympics some time. My sons are pretty fanatic judokas as well. They train hard - five evenings per week - and play three tournaments per month. Losing a match often happens very intensively: you’re on your own, and within a few minutes or even seconds you are violently thrown on your back – game over! If you’re not the top of the league (yet), you lose most of the matches.

How to stay motivated? How to keep on learning and performing? How to feel proud of what you are doing and accomplishing?
I’d like to share three things around failure and success, which I have seen working very well for these youngsters as well as for the leading and dynamic manufacturers which are ahead of the game during today’s rapid transitions and change.

Focus On The Right Actions To Get Results, Not The Results Themselves
Instead of focussing on winning the match, the most talented athletes focus on their task, doing the right things to have the best chances to win the match. They evaluate how well they performed their task and how they could do better. The end-result (winning or losing the match) is hardly indicative. There are so many other factors which influence the end-result. Their best match could be the one they lost, not the one they won.

In practice, many businesses focus too much on the results alone when managing their teams. Everything is okay as long as the results are okay. However, when they miss a deal, lose a client, or when a new service-product does not sell well, there is a problem
which has to be fixed ‘yesterday’. It doesn’t matter how - only the results count!

On the other hand, successful teams and individuals focus on building strong capabilities and competencies. They feel accountable for execution and results. Whenever either results or execution are below expectations, they review, find the root causes, try other approaches and learn. This will bring the best, sustainable results.
This is success! Not doing this – on the other hand - is the failing. So, failure should not be an option!

                       "Many businesses focus too much on the results alone..."

Articulate The Expected Outcome Of Learning And Experiments

I have seen how much more pleasure, engagement, learning and the results judokas get when they are very targeted in their learning and experiments. The experience the effects on intermediate objectives which are leading indicators for the overall result – winning more matches. For example, they will focus an entire tournament on dominating their opponents, force them to move and then experience how much more they are in control and get more opportunities to make a throw.

Too often, we see teams trying something new without being explicit about the expected effect and about how to ‘measure’ the impact. They tend to relate this impact to the end-result only. This reduces their ability to evaluate and validate their actions properly. They abandon good ideas too quickly because of the lack of performance improvement on the short term and move on to try something else. As a result, they learn slow and sometimes even follow unproductive paths.

However, successful teams articulate the learning objective, the expected impact and outcome of their initiatives and experiments very well. Whether it is about improving performance, finding new ways of working or developing a new service or business model, they have:
• A proper root-cause analysis;
• Clarity on critical assumptions which need to be valid for success;
• Formulated the critical questions;
• Designed their experiments to validate the critical assumptions and answer their key questions;
• Defined how to measure the results and validate their hypothesis.

Our Experiment-Learning-Card can help better articulate your experiments.

As a result, they can truly say that any answer or result is a good one and brings them further. A negative outcome is not a matter of failing at all. However, not following these kind practices is the failing. Failure should not be an option!

Like Edison said: “I did not fail, I only discovery 10.000 ways that don’t work.” Focus on learning from success and progress
Many young athletes with aspirations to get to the top – and ultimately will make it – are the winners at the moment. However, they have a mindset, attitude and practice to have a steep learning curve. That motivates and is the best predictor for good results.

Many of us often forget that we learn more successes and progress towards an aspiration than from failures themselves. Failures can increase a level of threat, stress and adrenaline, which can improve performance in a typical flight-or-fight situation. The effect is often short term and limits openness, creativity and collaboration. Which is not really a good situation for innovation and learning.
Our hormone-systems (dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and more) are built around feeling rewarded and connected when achieving something (together), making progress and getting closer to the goals and feeling connected with
each other.

Every step we get closer to the desired result will motivate us more to be persistent and find ways to make the next step.

• Learning ≠ Failing and Failing ≠ Learning;
• Focus on actions and tasks for results;
• Focus on building capabilities for results;
• Celebrate progress and (small) successes;
• Specify objectives of learning, experiments and discovery as explicit as possible;
• Use our Experiment-Learning-Card to better articulate your experiments.

Jan van Veen is Founder and Managing Director at moreMomentum.