By Miriam McLemore
Embedding a culture of failure in large enterprises requires a few proactive steps
Within business and across society at large, we have put a premium on success. However, innovative business leaders recognise that it is through failure – our own and that of our colleagues – that we learn the greatest lessons. Failure teaches us more than success does, and it is certainly more memorable. Without the possibility of failure, there will be no appetite for innovation, and no curiosity to fuel discovery. If teams feel there are adverse consequences to making mistakes, they step away from risk – and in doing so, sustain the status quo.
In large enterprises, failure is rarely seen as positive or even acceptable. As an Enterprise Strategist for Amazon Web Services (AWS), I can confirm Amazon’s reputation as a company that supports and even encourages failure – and this starts right at the top. As Jeff Bezos famously says, “Amazon is the best place to fail”. Our view is that you’re not reaching for enough if you did not fail along the way. Amazon’s Fire Phone failed completely, but we learned how to build very complex hardware and that has helped us with getting Alexa voice service right and developing the Echo home speaker product line.
Through my conversations with enterprise leaders in the Middle East, there is consistency that building an organization that supports the idea of failure revolves around three key areas: encouraging experimentation, cultivating an organization where it is safe to fail, and learning from failure to make the next phase stronger.
All companies are looking to innovate more rapidly to build new capabilities, but they don’t know how to enable their organization for failure. Creating a culture of experimentation calls for dealing with failure and accepting it as an important part of the process. Cloud adoption was a catalyst for enabling Aramex’s teams to experiment, iterate, and fail fast. Mais Rihani, Chief Technology Officer of Aramex, says, “Building on AWS, the team today has the freedom to provide MVPs (minimum viable products) for the slightest ideas for the business, test them in the market, and then assess and recommend whether to continue in that direction or quickly move to the next thing”.
Managing failure is a fine balance. As a leader, it’s important to give people the freedom to fail, while not letting things go too far before stopping and fixing them. Businesses must lower the cost of failure, and that could mean different things in different organizations. For Chalhoub Group, it meant creating a safe environment within the Group for new ideas in the form of a transformation initiative called Shift Chalhoub. Rania Masri, Chief Transformation Officer at Chalhoub Group, says, “As part of the movement, we launched Ibtikar, an in-house incubator for Chalhoub employees. Ibtikar provides the unique opportunity for employees to experiment and test ideas with dedicated time, funding, and mentorship, where risk-taking and failure are expected and welcomed, and considered learning moments for the organization”.
Failure is an opportunity to look back, examine why it didn’t work and what was your role in it. It’s tempting to dismiss any failures and focus on projects in hand that might offer future successes, but if you don’t understand why something went wrong, you could be setting yourself up to make the same mistake again and again. At Seera Group, failing fast means learning fast. Louise Blake, Vice President of Data at Seera Group, says, “We once built a machine learning model to predict a user's propensity to purchase on our website, which significantly failed to deliver at launch as a result of not involving the team who would be utilizing this model. Recognizing this mistake, today we are trialing multidisciplinary squads for product development, from the discovery stage through to implementation, and are already seeing the benefits”.
Failure is not always an easy topic to talk about, particularly in times of economic transformation, but it’s at these very moments that teams need the reassurance that it’s okay to fail. History is replete with examples of successful products born from failed experiments and the future success of businesses is set in their ability to embrace failure.
* Miriam McLemore, Enterprise Strategiest at Amazon Web Services (AWS)