As we’ve been supporting our clients—and ourselves—to become more agile in the face of complexity, one key breakpoint has emerged: when you try new things, failure is always an option. And no matter how solid your self-esteem, it stinks when things go badly. As we’ve said here before, complexity requires experimentation, and if you’re not failing, you’re probably not actually in an experimentation zone. You’re probably playing too safe. In fact one of the core complexity principles is that you can’t know until afterwards whether something really was a failure or not (remember that the glue on the back of post-its was supposed to be much stickier—the failure to create an adhesive that made a lasting bond fostered a product you probably use every day).
What transforms a failure into a beneficial learning experience, a setback into a way forward? As we’ve talked with our clients and colleagues, we have learned how hard this really is. We’ve heard many stories about times when people discovered that it wasn’t really safe to learn. That while it looked like learning was encouraged, actually what was really recognized was perfection—which keeps people coloring inside the lines as they have always known them. So we’ve been asking our clients: What gives you the strength to learn when something goes badly rather than being discouraged and vowing to go back to your safe place? Here’s what they tell us:
Time: Ok, so this one isn’t a secret. And still it rises to the top of the list for people because it’s such a helpful thing to notice and remember. It takes time to metabolize a failure into a learning experience. The initial response to failure can range from a kind of Gallic shrug to the desire to get into bed and pull your covers over your head. Both the shrug and the naptime are early responses that, our clients say, eventually can move into a deep learning space, but that usually takes two other key ingredients.
Sense of purpose. Our clients tell us that when their sense of self is connected to the particular event or element that didn’t go well, it is very hard to transform that into a helpful learning experience. Our response is linked to the options we perceive. There are two things we can do to create more options in our internal and external worlds. We can develop a more complex self-image so we are not so identified with what we do. And we can create a larger sense of purpose. When that event is lodged as one part of a larger self and sense of purpose, the one setback doesn’t get so fused with a destructive feeling of failure. This is why complexity theorist Dave Snowden stresses the need for suites of safe-to-fail experiments that all head in the same direction. With your eye on that larger purpose, each failure becomes a step toward a bigger success.
Leadership. The first two elements have leadership implications, but the third central ingredient was almost entirely leader-dependent. People told us that the reaction of their leader (or a mentor or a coach) to the failure had a massive impact on whether or not the failure could be metabolized into learning and the courage to try again. People tell us stories about the leaders who find out about the failure and help to reframe it, to celebrate the chance for deeper understanding about self or system, and send people off to try again. If the leader even approaches the corrosive territory known as “shame,” the possibilities for learning shrink significantly, and the odds of someone maintaining the courage to try something innovative again fade away.
We have also noticed what doesn’t get said when people talk about learning from failure. People rarely talk about reward or remuneration. They rarely talk about positional power. They rarely talk about workshops or motivational speeches.
We’ve talked to enough people about this to know there are idiosyncratic factors for different people. We know that for some people, a sense of control is vital; for others, a quick requirement to step back into the experimental space is of key importance. But these three core ingredients of time, a sense of purpose, and someone to help reframe failure into learning have been so common that they stand out. And they stand out as leadership moves we can all make—in our teams, in our families, for ourselves.