You'll never manage change effectively if you can't talk about failure
Change is a 'norm' of organisational life, yet something people often struggle to manage effectively. I knew that instinctively, but when I went researching for some stats about the success – or otherwise – of change projects even I was surprised.
Here are some of the sobering stories I uncovered:
- In an IBM global survey of over 1500 managers across 21 different industries, respondents described only 41 per cent of projects as 'successful'. That means almost six out of ten projects failed to achieve their specified goals.
- Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen claims that of the 30,000 new consumer products launched each year, 95 per cent fail in the marketplace. That doesn't even factor in those ideas that were dropped before they got as far as launch.
- A Hay Group study of senior business leaders involved in over 300 European mergers and acquisitions found that more than 90 per cent of these corporate deals failed to meet their objectives. In the UK, that figure rose to 97 per cent.
- Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge reports that 30-40 per cent of start-up companies fail to repay their investors' money, 70-80 per cent never deliver a return on investment and 90-95 per cent fall short of their initial projections.
- When leadership trainer and author Mark Murphy tracked 20,000 new hires in the USA, he found almost half the new recruits had failed within 18 months of being in the job.
There are, naturally, a whole host of different reasons why many projects, products, mergers, start-ups, new recruits and other change initiatives fail to deliver on expectations – and there's plenty of advice in my course about how to avoid this sorry state of affairs. However, what struck me most about this list was that failure is an extremely common – in fact often the most likely – outcome, yet, as Fast Company point out it's something we usually fear, refuse to accept and avoid talking about.
Talking about failure isn't just a good antidote to the disappointment of things going wrong. It has also been shown to help organisations learn more than when their projects succeed – to the extent that, for example, airlines with more experience of failure are paradoxically those with the lowest number of accidents.
So what steps can you take to get failure on the conversational agenda in your organisation? Here are my recommendations (inspired by business consultant and psychologist Debbie Stocker's great advice on breeding success from failure):
- Acknowledge that failure happens. Talk about your own failures, encourage others to talk about their failures, ask your clients and customers to let you know when they think you've failed. Admitting Failure, F*** Up Nights and #dayforfailure are all great examples of people openly sharing their failure stories in public.
- Don't brand individuals as failures. Acknowledge that failure isn't usually the fault of one person but derives from more complex combinations of actions and circumstances. If people fear they could become a scapegoat, they'll be less likely to admit the truth.
- Remove the obligation to succeed. If people think they aren't allowed to fail, they won't talk openly about failure and may be too scared to experiment with innovative or risky projects.
- Appreciate the different types of failure. Not all failures are the same. Some failures help us learn from our mistakes so that we can ultimately get things right and boost innovation. Others have more catastrophic consequences. Discussions should acknowledge the difference between experimental (and ultimately beneficial) failure and the catastrophic kind.
- Create a learning culture. Use effective processes to capture information about failed projects and share learnings – so that talking about failure becomes a standard part of project planning, monitoring and debriefing.
- Discuss when to quit. Sometimes failure is a blip on the way to success, sometimes it's a time-wasting dead-end. Having an open approach to discussing failure can help you work out which of the two scenarios you're dealing with and decide whether and when to pull the plug.
Your natural reaction in reading all this may well be that you'd rather you never failed in the first place. In some instances that could be bad for your career; the co-founder of holiday rental marketplace HomeAway actually seeks out employees who have a healthy familiarity with failure. So, next time you're involved in a new initiative in your organisation, be prepared for things to go wrong, keep talking and – most importantly – keep learning.
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