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Why getting things wrong should be a cause for celebration

At a recent PA event, we asked guests how agile they thought their organisations were. The respondents, senior leaders from a wide range of private and public sector organisations, were pretty pessimistic on the whole. Just a handful (3 per cent) believed their organisations were truly agile. And while 80 per cent said achieving greater levels of agility was critical, most thought they only had ‘some idea’ about how to become more agile.

We’re not talking about agile software delivery here – creating product owners scrum teams or sprints – but rather how flexible an organisation is. How quickly and effectively it can react to the changing world. And we think the key to that kind of agility is to make it okay for people to ‘fail’. We’re all familiar with the idea that we learn from our mistakes. Experimenting, getting things wrong then putting them right quickly applies in organisations too. It’s good to create conditions where people in your organisation can fail quickly so they can reconfigure strategy, processes, talent and technology to open up opportunities that will bring value.

Here are three ways to embrace failure:

Encourage everyone to see ‘failure’ positively

Clearly we’re not talking about celebrating sloppy work or bad behaviour. We’re talking about highlighting how experimentation can bring you to the desired outcome in the end. Leadership plays an important role here. Leaders should share those stories. And they should create an environment where it’s ‘safe’ to suggest or try things. A two-year Google study identified ‘psychological safety' as the common denominator that differentiates high performing teams from others. Psychological safety is characterised by a shared belief that the team is safe: you can be yourself, take risks and admit mistakes, without fear of negative consequences. Paul Santagata, Google’s Head of Industry, offers advice for creating this kind of environment. For example, he suggests getting everyone to regularly reflect on things we all have in common. It means changing the way everyone understands the balance between the likely costs versus the benefits of speaking up.

What does an Agile organisation look like? Five characteristics to help you thrive.


Develop a learning mindset

Failure is an opportunity to investigate what went wrong – was it a problem with the product or an inefficient process? As long as you’ve created an environment with psychological safety, people won’t feel looking back at what went wrong is seeking someone to blame. They’ll understand it’s to learn.

In the world of aviation pilots are encouraged to be open and honest about their mistakes. The industry has independent bodies designed to investigate when things go wrong. Failure is not regarded as an indictment of the specific pilot who may have slipped up, but as a precious learning opportunity for all pilots and airlines. Instead of denying failure, aviation teaches us to learn from it and subsequently improve what previously went wrong.

Reward people for trying new things

Less than a third of the people at our event agreed that their organisation encourages a culture where people learn from their mistakes. They said culture, leadership and reward structures were key factors that held them back. Rewarding trialing and testing is necessary to underline a company’s view of innovation / experimentation as a competitive advantage. Some organisations build this into their culture. For example, P&G has a ‘heroic failure’ award that goes to the team with the biggest failure that produced the greatest insight.

We think agility is crucial for staying competitive for the next generation. And a willingness to experiment and learn is a necessary element for agility. As Thomas Edison famously said after 10,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the lightbulb before finally achieving his goal, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” We think that’s just the attitude organisations need to instill.

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