Failing to fail

The old proverb “If at first you don’t succeed try, try again” … should actually read “If at first you don’t succeed FAIL, FAIL again”.  Life has taught me –  true path to success is strewn with failures, multiple attempts, missed calls…all rich learning experiences & events which propel you on the road to success and achievements.

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Johnson & Johnson (where I had the privilege to work on Global transformation teams) gave me a lifetime opportunity to be trained by IDEO;  world’s most famous design & innovation company. We were seized with how to design the new  global HR service delivery model for J&J and turned to IDEO to understand how to create human-centered design. We wanted a creative approach to problem solving that starts with people and arrives at new solutions tailored to meet their lives.  Clear advice of IDEO was “rapid prototyping”. Put a stake in the ground based on present understanding; study the impact and change again. We experienced  IDEO’s formula of  success: “Fail often to succeed sooner!!”

Unfortunately, this runs counter to our deep rooted fear of failure. We are brought up on a diet of doing it right first time; ironing out all the glitches before we launch. Failure is a bad word: whether in school or in corporates. Witch hunting and blame fixing becomes the norm whenever there is a failure. This is like trampling on all the clues and evidence on the “crime scene”… and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes!! Actually each and every failure brings in learnings. But rather than analyzing what happened; what went right; how did we go wrong and what do we need to do differently, we tend to get into an over- gear of “burying the body” and obfuscating all the evidence such that even the fabled Hercule Poirot cannot help us!!!

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Fortunately, the days of shooting the messenger who brings in the bad news have faded into history with the Roman Emperors who would hear no contrary views. Today companies and bosses are far more open and ready to  take risks. This creates more transparency and openness on one hand; and on the other, better team solutions by leveraging everyone’s inputs and creativity. No gainsaying this is indeed the need of the hour, where no one has all the answers and even if  one does –  we soon experience that given the VUCA world, the problem/challenge has undergone a change;  and so we need to start all over again.

It in this context we must understand James Quincy CEO of Coca-Cola comment in his Strategy Summit in May 2017: “If we are not making mistakes, we are not trying hard enough”. Innovation means experimentation; and experiments mean failures. There is no learning without failing. There can be no success without setbacks.  Truly innovative & efficacious companies know that. So, to be successful – double your failure rate!! And from every failure: analyze and capture learnings. Try again and Fail again. This is the path to resounding success. Which is why NetFlix CEO Reed Hastings laments: ” Our hit ratio is too high. We have to take more risks, to try more crazy things….we should have a higher cancel rate overall”

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We have our own classic example of Abdul Kalam’s over riding the computers at Sriharikota at T minus 20 secs of a SLV  blast-off; and seeing the Missile nosedive into the sea – under the watching eyes of the nation and the press. But with the backing of Satish Dhawan they faced the Press and told them that they will learn from the failure and come out successful – which they did within an year.  Recently SHAR-ISRO gave the country a gift that can be best called ‘one of its kind’:ISRO launched India’s 100th satellite along with 30 others, out of which 28 were from different countries!!

It is not rocket science, but sheer common sense, that you improve your odds if you increase the no of tries. In Angel Broking and VC funding there is only 10% chance of success. Pharmaceutical companies have high profile R&D centers with latest equipment and top class scientists working on hundreds of molecules which may lead to one marketable drug in 3/4 years time frame. Movies  is another high risk game; it  is seen that 1.3% of all films earn 80% of Box Office collections. Point being there is no sure fire formula for success: Big Shots are just little shots who kept plugging away till they made it big!!

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Seeing it in another way : there are umpteen examples where success bred the “failure trap”.  Companies became over confident and complacent: refused to change with times and their past success was the biggest millstone around their neck . Cases of Nokia; Kodak; and closer home Hindustan Motors; HMT Watches; Bush Radios  are all well documented to prove that past success guarantees nothing in the future. Such companies and their managements get lulled into a false sense of security based on their past; and stop analyzing the causes of success. They fool themselves that success is due to their superior strategy/better product/more intelligent understanding of the market. And since they do not investigate the real causes of success -their failure to ask why- makes their success shortlived. They can break this vicious circle ONLY and ONLY when they face failure and learn from their failures.

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Karl Slym who was my MD in General Motors once made all of us on the  management board sweat. He asked each Director if they had achieved their target. Marketing said yes; as did  Manufacturing; ditto Logistics & SC; Technical  like-wise and also Finance &  HR. Then the prophetic hammer : “Gentlemen if each one of you is green on your dashboard; why is GM India red?” There was a story in Fortune 2009, after Alan Mullaly moved from Boeing to Ford he asked people to use a color code for their management reports. Green if all was well; Yellow if it required more scrutiny and Red if there was a problem. All reports which were tabled used to be green; totally frustrating the new CEO. Are we really doing that well in Ford was the question? Till the day one Department Head dared to table a Yellow report. While all other Board members were stunned into silence; Alan’s response was a thumping applause when that report came up for discussion. Thereafter, the reports submitted started becoming more colorful.

It is the Leaders’ role to encourage failure. And to learn from each failure. Of course a pilot or a surgeon does not have the liberty of making mistakes and learning from them. Fedex will attempt a “Perfect Order” in terms of deliveries (right package; right address; right condition) and be perfect in facing the client: but they experiment and improve in all other internal facing functions.  Corporate world will do well to remember the Pixar President’s edict: ” Mistakes are not a necessary evil. They are NO evil at all”. That is why Tatas have a “Dare to Try” award. Trikaya Grey gives out in their Annual conference a “Heroic Failure” award. Even NASA apparently has instituted a “Lean Forward, Fail Smart” award.

Happy failing; happy learning; happy growing: vikas

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PS This piece is inspired the research done by my partner and friend Ramchandra Rao for one of our assignments. Gives me a chance to acknowledge his contribution in my intellectual life…