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Failure is success turned inside out

Failure is success turned inside out

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Author: Mariam Taqui Ali | Senior Associate – KNOLSKAPE Insights Centre

Failure is success turned inside out

Once upon a time, there a was big, successful man. He was much admired and respected for the change he had brought into the community. He was a revolutionary in his time. One day, a younger boy came along did incredible things that people had never seen before. What was worse, he did it better than the old man. The old man was left grumbling and disheartened. Before long, people forgot the wonders of the old man and moved on to appreciate and make use of the products that the new boy had to offer.

While it may seem tragic that people forgot the previous man for all his contributions and quickly lent their patronage to the younger person, this story is nothing but the truth about Nokia and Apple. In the words of Nokia CEO, “we didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost”.

In a world which is moving at a rapid pace, and organizations and industries being constantly disrupted, the ability to foresee or make an actionable plan for the next five or ten years at organizational, departmental or individual level is difficult. Then you may wonder, how do we stay ahead of the competition and survive in this VUCA world.  After all, our processes, ways have brought us this far. Wouldn’t it be wise to trust them and keep working the usual way?

It is important, to realise that what got you here almost never gets you further. It has become imperative for HR and L&D professionals to not only train the workforce for current roles or jobs but prepare them for the future, a future that may seem foggy right now. To achieve this, building a solid Learning Culture is crucial, one that normalizes failure, and understands that ‘Failure is success turned inside out’.

KNOLSKAPE’s digital readiness survey discovered that 88% of the organizations believe they take measured risks to solve business challenges. However only 40% of the organizations believe they have a culture that encourages smart failures. It is surprising that not many organizations encourage the fail fast approach. Unfortunately, the stigma associated with failing or failure has been rooted in the history of mankind.

Failure or failing fast, in the VUCA world is synonymous with learning. The ability to learn from the pitfalls, the slips, and the mishaps, serve as stepping stones to getting the work done and done correctly. Learning from failures, as a culture, is strongly propounded by corporations like Coca Cola, Amazon and Netflix. The CEOs constantly talk, experience, explain and engage in learning from their failures. They believe that if you are afraid to fail, you are not trying hard enough. What is more important is that these lessons are cascaded down to the entire organization, allowing others to make different mistakes.

Where organizations fail in implementing a fail fast approach is in the belief that once you have failed, you have learnt all your lessons. Often, failure may not teach you the right thing, but it will certainly teach you what isn’t right. Thomas Alva Edison had rightly summed it up when he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ It is then, we need to understand that failure and learning are a classic case of the chicken and the egg. It is a cycle where you need to keep at it and try constantly to improve, even when a plausible solution has been achieved. In Edison’s words “There’s a way to do it better – find it.”

Nokia lost to Apple and Samsung, because it failed to innovate and didn’t learn from its failures. Any organization which doesn’t embrace failure as part of learning and implement it at each level will find survival in this VUCA world to be crutching challenge. The key is to learn and foster a learning culture across the organization.

Organizations, specifically HR and L&D teams, can bring this about through simple and unique practices:

  1. Patting a person for the effort after he/she fails at something
  2. Throwing the floor open for a constructive discussion while ensuring an employee doesn’t feel demotivated and can rationally learn from what went wrong
  3. Working in teams and taking ownership for mistakes as a team certainly works in failing smartly and the shared burden is much easier to deal with.

While learning remains pivotal for an organization to grow and scale, what remains at the core is the ability to fail and fail fast, learn and keep at it. Just because nothing is wrong doesn’t mean that it is the best way to handle an outcome. Constant change, innovation and learning are key to success in the highly competitive VUCA world. And, “there is no learning without failure, or success without setbacks.”

This post is part of a three-part blog series on Learning Culture. Watch out for our next blog in this series, where we address the issues of ‘fostering a fail fast culture and the best practices.


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KNOLSKAPE is a global leader in experiential learning with a mission to help organizations and employees become future ready. Using a large award-winning portfolio of simulations aligned with 100+ competencies and cutting-edge talent intelligence, KNOLSKAPE produces stellar outcomes for more than 375+ organizations across 75 countries. Driven by research and thought leadership, KNOLSKAPE offers its products and solutions in a flexible subscription model powered by omni-channel delivery.

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