When Thomas Edison was asked about the invention of the light bulb, he used to say that he had never failed, just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work! This sheds light on the right to make mistakes. Shameful for some, a gateway to the future for others, mistakes are above all a universal experience that all humans encounter during their lifetimes. Can we blame a child who falls over more than 2,000 times before learning how to walk? What would happen if he didn’t attempt the experiment again?
The vice of faults, the virtue of mistakes
Every failure, every wrong step, every mistake is actually an opportunity to learn and grow. Still, we need to agree on what we mean by “mistake”, “fault” and “failure”.
While a fault is deliberate and results from negligence or a lack of work, mistakes remain unconscious, without the intention to harm. Both can lead to failure, often crushing, but sometimes inspiring or even pivotal... As in the case of Steve Jobs. On being fired from Apple in 1985, the iPhone inventor confided: “It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again.” He drew new creativity from this setback, enabling him to return in 1997 as CEO of Apple, which was then on the verge of bankruptcy. The rest, of course, is history...
Failure is cultural
Could there be hidden merit in the right to make mistakes? That depends, because our relationship to failure is very cultural. In southern European countries, failure is as dreaded as it is unmentionable. The fault lies with education systems that condemn “dunces” from a very early age. And this model unfortunately very often persists in the corporate world. Someone who fails continues to be seen as a bad student, who didn’t follow the instructions properly. In these organizations, where any error is experienced as a personal defeat, mistakes arouse an almost irrational fear of risk.
Conversely, the culture of failure is valued in the United States, as it is in England and Sweden, where a museum of commercial disasters showcases unsuccessful ventures. Failure – a springboard to success? That is certainly the motto of Silicon Valley, where they spend their time failing in order to get better. Yes, failure has many little-known virtues, such as discovering something you weren’t looking for, for example. If Christopher Columbus hadn’t made a mistake, he would never have discovered America. If the Tatin sisters had followed the recipe, they would never have invented their delicious tart... A source of inspiration, error is also conducive to innovation as it makes it possible to improve, to adjust your research to eventually achieve the best result.
Stop blaming other people
For a failure to be fruitful, however, you need to dare to face it head on, to make it part of your business plan, like Elon Musk. This is the first lesson that any business should apply. “In reality, we as companies are too often unaware of the root causes of failure. It's easy to always blame someone else. Our analyses remain too superficial, without questioning,” concedes – in a LinkedIn article – Claire Pedini, Senior Vice-President, Human Resources and Digital Transformation at Saint-Gobain. Amy Edmondson, an American academic, abhors this culture of blame and advocates “the fearless organization”. “She found a radical answer to implement in business organizations: fail fast to succeed fast.”
“I don’t like the word failure, I think it’s a word that generally tends to be interpreted as negative. And for me, I prefer to not make it about success and failure, but just make it about learning” explains Minas Apelian, Vice-President of Internal and External Venturing at Saint-Gobain (Nova). “I try to always take the time to reflect and learn from successful and unsuccessful projects. This learning helps me make better decisions and allows me to adjust my approach to better achieve my goals.”
In other words, it is about generating real momentum to become a learning and agile company. This managerial model is found in startups which dare to create without fear. Like a young child, they explore, experiment, stumble, get up and try again! “Organizations must learn from their failures and promote risk-taking and experimentation, which is key to success," says Benoit Bazin, Saint-Gobain's Chief Operating Officer, in a LinkedIn article titled “We need to make happy those we want to make better!”. “The team should operate like a group of mountaineers that help each other along, complement one another and enjoy mutual trust.” To be agile, new managerial methods are therefore needed, based on collective endeavor and putting people at the center of projects. The major challenge will be to change the way we look at failure to treat it as a likely outcome. Not easy, but that's the very foundation of agility!
Mistakes, like success, raise the question of dependence on social norms with regard to other people and one’s own judgment. They also highlight the cultural differences at work from one country to the next. But wherever we are, let’s not forget the words of former US President John F. Kennedy: “The biggest mistake people can make is to be afraid to make one.”
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