Failing fast is for failures… …let’s learn instead

The Russians are good at thinking outside of the box. In the 1940s the Russian army trained an elite force of dogs to run under enemy tanks carrying explosives to target the weak underside of those tanks. However, when deployed in the field the dogs ran towards the familiar noise of the Russian’s diesel engine tanks rather than the enemy petrol engine tanks. Fail High frequency trading has revolutionised the stock market. Huge volumes of transactions are carried out every second. Gone are the days of shouting across trade room floors. In 2010 the stock market had a flash crash. Many trillions were wiped of the US stock exchange in no more than a few minutes. Theories abound as to why this happened but certainly it was high frequency trading that exacerbated this disaster. Fail Simon Cowell hit on a fantastic publicity and money making scheme in X factor. What’s most clever is that every year the program would conclude in time to release a single from the winner that would inevitably make Christmas number 1. This was until 2009. Joe McEldery won and released his single “The Climb”. At this point, the public reacted and started a viral rebellion to bring Rage Against The Machine’s single “Killing in the Name” to number 1 instead. Sure enough X Factor’s single didn’t get to number one. Fail When the England football team kick off… Well you’ve probably picked up the pattern here! This blog is about failure “we need to celebrate failure”, “we need to create room for failure”, “we should adopt a fail  fast approach”. How many times have you heard these kinds of phrases thrown around? I’m sure I’ve said it once or twice.

Well if you’re aim is to fail fast, all you’ll do is fail…

Not so long ago I heard a talk from the founder and CEO of Good Energy, Juliet Davenport. She reset everyone’s interpretation of what it is to fail fast. I wanted to share that here… It’s not plagiarism if I’m a fast follower! Fail fast comes from systems engineering. If a system is about to fail you want to know about it quickly to stop it, receive feedback and make a change to correct it next time. It’s really more about learning and responding quickly then it is about failing. Doesn’t that make so much more sense than how people tend to use the fast fail phrase these days? We can build electronic systems that do this with artificial intelligence. Can we build corporate and organisational systems that do this? My cousin once compared artificial intelligence with the corporate giants of today (sorry Charlie – I’m ‘fast following’ this idea also!). Some of them are so enormous that it is completely impossible for the board to truly know or control what is happening, yet the organisation continues to respond and learn from external inputs… Is that artificially intelligent?

How can we build artificially intelligent organisations?

Some organisations systematically prevent learning and improvements. Matthew Suede’s book, “Black Box Thinking”, talks about how the medical industry is set up to avoid recognition of failure or learning from it due in large part to the threat of legal action. (If you’re in the medical industry – I appreciate there’s more to it than that!… just an example for illustration.). This is compared against the aviation industry where all planes are equipped with a black box to record every action in a flight and make that available for analysis. The most important records are when something went wrong. There’s lots of practical techniques out there to build an organisation that systematically learns. I used to work in knowledge management. We used to promote (and I still would) lots of good practice activities to foster a corporation’s knowledge e.g. placing the output of a lessons learnt review in the ‘place everyone goes to do their work’ such as on the default home page of the internet browser or avoiding closed conversations (think email) that prevent others bringing new, innovative ideas forward (think open social platforms). At Bristol Water, a big source of innovation is our Brainwaves scheme. It’s a staff suggestion forum and has led to a huge range of ideas from dairy free milk at our coffee facilities, swifter identification of first aiders through different coloured lanyards to the use electric vehicles and trials in technologies such as bio bullets to control the population of zebra mussels. We don’t reward failure and we don’t reward success – we reward participation. These are all good things to create a corporate growth mind-set (i.e. one that learns) but there’s always more we can do. Fundamentally it’s the people in our business that are learning. Training professionals tell me that 70% of our learning comes on the job and only a tiny proportion from formal training. What’s more is, we learn through failure. Certainly that’s when I’ve grown the most (as unpleasant as it is).

What a conundrum – how do we learn through failure but avoid our companies failing?

If we want our organisations to be ‘artificially intelligent’ and learn we need to systematise methods where our people are constantly learning. Job rotations systems feel like a great solution however most companies stop doing this once you’re out of the graduate recruitment scheme. But they’re great. Forcing us into environments we’re not familiar with. We’ll probably fail as we pick up new skills. These learnings won’t be written down but they will be embedded in a way that no lessons learnt report could ever achieve. I don’t think we’ve got the full potential out of them yet. How far can we push rotation systems? Could we get outside the echo chambers of our own companies? Why don’t we set up partnerships with other local companies or consultancies where we can swop staff around through established secondments? Developing this idea doesn’t mean we have to become jack of all trades and masters of none, sacrificing valuable specialisms: we might be able to see our specialist areas from new angles:
  • You might be the most commercial person in your procurement function but never have had the chance to work in a cash poor start-up and really feel the impact of your decisions
  • You might work for an advisory body dealing with the issue of access to healthcare, but never spent time with the social workers who share the burden of overcoming the small practical obstacles that become big blockers
  • You might be the most persuasive salesman but never had the responsibility of balancing a budget preventing you from hitting the right price point. Or perhaps you’re the budget holder but never experienced the pressure of forming a compelling pitch jading your line of questioning towards the wrong priorities.
And so the list could go on. As individuals we can choose to learn like this by steering our own careers but corporations need to systematise the process and I think there’s opportunity to go much further than many companies do today. The challenge is that the output is around qualitative resilience rather than quantitative finances, so persuading the Board isn’t easy… (maybe there’s another blog in that!) About Chris Chris joined Bristol Water in 2017 and established the new Business Improvement and Innovation department within the CEO office. His role is to push the Bristol Water forward, seeking to accelerate today’s adoption of tomorrow’s innovations. He covers everything from operating model development and business change to innovation management, recently founding Bristol Water’s business incubator supporting an up-and-coming Robotics consultancy. Before joining Bristol Water, Chris spent over 7 years as a management consultant working across the utilities, energy and defence industries.