Failure can be transformational, if we let it be.
All organizations and people fail at some point. At least once. Failure is a common denominator of life, but at the same time an important opportunity for transformation. How we repurpose failure into transformation depends on how well we navigate the three factors that drive failure. And with that said, here’s a brief roadmap from failure to transformation.
1. Recognize that failure is happening, even if you don’t know why.
It is incredibly common for people and organizations to be blind to their own failures (even if others can see them clearly from the outside looking in). This inability to see a the symptoms of a failure in progress, however subtle they may be, will make the hole deeper, and reinforce the behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs that are driving the fail.
Enron was a good example of a failure in progress that went unnoticed until it was too late. Nobody in the organization, not even the top notch McKinsey consultants swarming through Enron's headquarters, had a grasp on how dangerously out of kilter the organization was. Enron was led by a McKinsey alum, there was a McKinsey-esque up or out performance management policy, and lots of very smart people who believed all was well. Until, of course, it wasn't. And when that moment came, the audacity of the failure, its sheer magnitude and impact were staggering.
Seeing that you are failing requires asking annoying, difficult questions even when you think things are fine. Are we doing the right thing? Are our results truly what they should be? Better than what others are achieving? Are there more effective ways to do what we’re trying to get done? These and other annoying questions need to be asked not just by perpetual naysayers, but by both leadership and the rank and file - we must be self aware, and perpetually question what we do.
The lack of awareness of failure happens in the nonprofit world too, of course, and Oxfam International is likely the most recent and unfortunate high profile example. The story painted in recent news articles is of an organization that was not aware of, or at least doing much about, toxic aspects of its culture. Years later, their leadership has now embraced this epic fail, and is creating an independent body to help them fix it. To put the cat back in the bag, and close the lid on Pandora’s box. I wish them well, and believe their remarkable CEO can turn it around. Nevertheless, the lack of awareness of the cultural toxicity has been damaging, and and their brand has been tarnished.
2. Understand why the failure happened, or is happening, and embrace that truth - however difficult that may be.
While the result of a failure may be obvious (rapidly declining revenues, mass exodus of staff, tarnished reputations etc.), the root cause is almost always hard to see. And I get that. It's hard, painful even to look back and honestly ask what went wrong, identify one’s own contribution to the fail and take responsibility for it. Doing so requires a degree of humility that is rare by all accounts. It's so much easier to explain away a failure than take responsibility for it. It is that lack of humility, the inability to ask frankly “what could I have done differently” that prevents leaders from coming to terms with failure and addressing its root causes.
One organisation I'm familiar with has witnessed unprecedented turn over in senior and mid level leadership over an extended period of time. The fact that it has continued so long has become destabilizing is an existential threat to their future. But the inability of key individuals to be humble, and to genuinely ask where they may have made mistakes, will block the road to recovery. Irreversibly so. They are stuck in a doom loop and will likely keep spiraling down until it's game over. And I get that too - it’s painfully hard to stare failure in face when you’re looking in the mirror.
3. Cultivate resilience
This third driver that perpetuates failure in the early stages is the sense that it can’t be overcome - that things are broken beyond repair, that recovery is too difficult or complicated or expensive. All that can be overwhelming, the feet become too heavy to put one in front of the other. There is also the sense that failure is an endpoint, a “game over” moment rather than something we pass through. Yes, for Enron, it really was an end game because it had gone too far, but for Oxfam and many other, or even most organizations, failure is a transient phenomena; it can lead to positive transformation, if we let it. At the bottom of the proverbial well, the scales drop from our eyes and we see the bricks that surround us as stepping stones to help us climb out. Our voice, and cries for help can summon a kind soul to dangle a rope with which we climb up to the light. These thing happen, every single day.
So, unless you were at Enron, your failures, and mine too, may not be done deeds. These are things that happened, places we have visited, but they need not be the places we remain. This is true, even if hard to see from the bottom of a deep well.
From this place of broken things, be it the bottom of a well, a series of proposal losses, an "inexplicable" mass exodus of staff or, more personally, the loss of a job, we can, and we must, support the undeniable the weight of the failure while at the same time gathering the strength to understand what happened, take responsibility for one’s role in the fall, and continue to push forward with a solution driven by insight - and humility. These are the hardest of times, recovering from failure, but they are also the most transformational. They are, in their essence, opportunities to create something anew, to make ourselves better and stronger than we ever were before.