Failure is the key to success.
Sounds a bit like something a wizened old Buddhist monk might say to a befuddled young apprentice. But within that little counterintuitive nugget lies one of the biggest trends in management today. Contrary to popular belief, failure is an option. Long the province of corporate also-rans and has-beens, it is emerging as a core management strategy for leaders, not just laggards. And that’s good news for CLOs.
Credit Silicon Valley and its entrepreneurial startup culture for the trend. Nearly every day, a new business is created there, each one aiming to be the next Facebook, Google or Twitter. Deep-pocketed venture capitalists are willing to foot the bill for many, providing them capital and counsel in the hope that they’ll get in on the ground floor of America’s next rising giant.
But the road to success is littered with the hollowed-out shells of once promising companies. For every Facebook, there are dozens of Myspaces and Friendsters. According to some estimates, 70 to 80 percent of startups burn through their cash without generating any return for their investors.
For many entrepreneurs, a flop is a fillip, forging fruitful relationships and providing valuable business lessons they can use in future endeavors. In fact, the prevalence of failed entrepreneurs led to the creation of a cottage industry in failure. There’s even a conference called FailCon, a one-day affair that brought together chastened wannabes to share their tales of crisis and calamity.
But the event’s founder, Cassandra Phillipps, canceled it last fall, saying that the stigma attached to a flop is so far gone that a conference seemed unnecessary. “It’s in the lexicon that you’re going to fail,” she told The New York Times in November.
Organizations outside of Silicon Valley are waking up to the value — and necessity — of failure. Companies big and small are embracing failure as a management strategy.
As business cycles accelerate, competitors emerge seemingly overnight and industry-leading products wax and wane faster than ever, the ability to quickly adapt, adjust and create new products and processes is paramount. Innovation grows out of experimentation. And failure is just part of the game.
Therein lies the golden opportunity for CLOs. What the attendees of FailCon understood and the coaches, consultants and academics who’ve planted a flag around the topic do, too, is that failures are only valuable if we learn from the experience.
As more companies embrace failure not just as a consequence of business but also as a core strategy, learning organizations have a key role to play. Gathering lessons learned and sharing them throughout the organization has always been part of the job. Structured right, learning departments are like the circulatory system of the organization, bringing nutrients and life-giving oxygen throughout the body and flushing waste in the process.
All too often though, learning departments get stuck on programs and processes and miss the bigger picture. Instructional design, performance assessment and capability development are all undeniable parts of the job. But so are reflection and communication.
At companies like San Diego-based Qualcomm, the learning department isn’t just tasked with developing employee skills. They’re the keeper of the corporate culture and a primary communicator with the organization.
CLO Tamar Elkeles and her team played a pivotal role in creating a corporate museum that tells the company’s story and shares the lessons learned along the way. They organize internal events that bring together subject-matter experts to share their challenges and what they learned along the way.
The learning department’s 52 Weeks initiative, originally started in 2005 as a weekly email newsletter for new employees, grew into a website and continuous communication vehicle for employees to share stories, mark milestones and give a behind-the-scenes look at decision-making.
Those are the kinds of initiatives that put CLOs at the heart of future growth. Failure to take advantage of this golden opportunity? Well, maybe failure is not an option after all.