Blog / Leadership & Transformation

Learn to Fail Successfully as Failing is an Element of Success

— Olivier Van DuürenFailure is an element of success. If you fail, do it quickly, and more importantly, learn quickly. You need to fail in order to succeed in your transformation. There are still big differences in cultures and mindsets. In the US failing is commonly accepted, while in other markets such as Europe, failing is still not seen as part of success. But this mindset is evolving, and the start-up movement has bootstrapped the evolution of failure and experimentation being part of success.Digital Transformation is about failing fast, learn fast, and below some examples are testimonials to that. When artificial intelligence goes wrong. There are examples of AI tests that fail, in March 2016 Microsoft launched Tay, an artificial intelligence Twitter person that would learn from tweets while engaging with millennials. However, some people went into a hacking mode and maliciously provided Tay with racist information. Tay became a racist. He heard all those words, self-learned from them and thought that was what people wanted, then he became that person. Microsoft pulled the experiment offline within 48 hours and in December 2016 Microsoft released a new, enhanced chatbot version based on those learnings called Zo. Another example is the one that New York based Jacky Alciné experienced when using a Google Photo app that recognizes photos to give labels to each of them. Jacky and her friend, both dark colored, were unfortunately categorized as gorillas. After a Twitter storm, Google solved the problem in fifteen hours and apologized.  

See failures during transformation, disruption and innovation as necessary to grow in your personal and professional life.

  Olivier Van Duüren, Professor of the Digital Business Global MBA at Zigurat Innovation & Technology Business School and Founder of the Dualarity, explains his main personal learnings around failing.

1. Failure is only failure if we fail to learn from it. Failing to learn from failure is to become successful in failing.

2. Fear of failure holds people back from realizing their full potential. If you haven't failed, you haven't lived so it is better to fail rather than not trying at all.

3. Failure is a critical element of Success. Every failure brings you one step closer to success as long as you learn. It's only a failure when we fail to rise again after a fall.

4. Leadership and management need to create the right conditions for risk-taking to succeed and this includes the right rewards, recognition and communication.

5. Enjoy field journalism. We need to communicate, communicate and communicate. Communicate success and failure, allow people to see where progress is being made, where it is not and what you learned along the way. Give them a perspective on the short term and long term results, an outlook on when hard work will give dividends and how far the light at the end of the tunnel is. Show signs that things are working and be transparent about failures and its learning. With transformation, successes and failures might be small and often. Benjamin Zander, English Conductor and Musical Director of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, suggests that when you make a mistake or the people you are working with make a mistake, simply say, ‘How fascinating’. By doing this you remove the power of the failure to impact negatively on the opportunity for learning. So next time you miss your budget or your deadline, say, ‘How Fascinating’. Why not?

6. The CEO of Lego, when evaluating people or leaders who didn’t meet their goals, didn’t blame them for failing. He blamed them for failing to ask for help and others for failing to give help. It created an attitude of ‘blame is not for failure; it is for failing to help or ask for help’, allowing failure to be part of success.

7. If you fail in business or life never lay blame on others. It’s not Them, We, I; it is always I first: ‘I could have done this better’; ‘Let me share you my learnings'. Then it’s ‘We collectively could have done this better but we learned the following’, and then we start talking about them.

8. Embrace a culture of an open mindset. With a growth and collaborative mindset, we allow innovation and experimentation to flourish. It is the mindset that matters, regardless of age or occupation. Stanford University psychologist and Professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, has described people with a growth mindset as those who believe that ability can be developed. They believe in persistence in the face of setbacks, seeing failures as essential to mastery, learning from criticism, embracing challenges with agility, and finding lessons and inspiration in the success of others. Those with fixed mindsets give up easily, see failures as scary, ignore useful negative feedback, avoid challenges, don’t believe they can change. With a growth mindset we develop, we are less stressed and more creative. Trying to be creative as an end goal is not the right way to go. Setting the right conditions is what should prevail. Be open-minded and see the world ahead as one full of opportunities and learnings. Dr. Carol Dweck and Kathleen Hogan, EVP HR at Microsoft, wrote a paper in the Harvard Business Review on How Microsoft Uses a Growth Mindset to Develop Leaders.

9. A level of chaos unleashes creativity and sparks imagination. Not anarchy, but a level of instability and intrigue, risk-taking and openness to experience. Obsession for operational excellence might not be good for every part of our business; getting closer to some kind of entrepreneurial chaos is good for us so we unleash the creative energy and ideas. We can test things out without reaching for excellence when failure is an option and the learning that comes with it is the reward.

10. An open and growth mindset should start when we are kids, where parents help you to see that making mistakes is part of growing up and that you can learn from it. How do we bring this thinking into the current world of education? A world that is driven by the reward of the outcome and this based on the actual results. Can we teach them that the journey is the reward and that experimenting, failing and learning is part of the reward.

— Nelson Mandela


Zigurat Global Institute of Technology