Fast Fail – We can’t learn from our failures if we don’t admit them!

MJ

Many of you will have heard or seen the famous Michael Jordan quote:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Of course, in sport judgment about success or failure is usually clear.  In tennis there are no draws.  In football (soccer) at the end of the season there is one team that wins the league.

In financial services, the industry where I have done much of my work, there has been an obsession with agility and innovation in recent years and the term ‘fast fail’ (or fail fast) has become overused!  Of course, there is immense value in proving that something doesn’t work quickly rather than wasting months on some application or initiative that ultimately would have failed to work effectively.  There is even greater value in the learning we can take from these exercises.

There is a significant cultural problem, however, which is how do we learn in environments that do not readily tolerate failure.  In fact the cultural norms of top down directive management, where bad news does not easily travel back up the line, often lead to organizational denial around failure.

I remember attending a steering committee for a major programme at a global bank, where it became clear that items on the plan that should have been complete hadn’t even been started!  There was a distinct reluctance by some of the senior people in the meeting to even acknowledge this, never mind the consideration of changing the plan to reflect reality!  It would have meant openly admitting the next major delivery would not be achieved on a previously agreed date.

Top athletes like Jordan and Federer strive for success but readily admit when they come up short and learn from it.  How often do we attend job interviews, either as interviewers or candidates and have honest conversations about how we screwed up and what we learnt from it?

This one of a number of cultural traits in the corporate world that needs to be addressed!  More to follow, including lessons from the history of financial markets.

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