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Failure, learning, and company culture

I’ve had a number of posts drawing on the experiences from my bachelor studies, that I started some six years ago. I’m currently studying what will be the final module, focusing on entrepreneurship, innovation, and sustainability. This has led me to think about the differences between intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship – which can be summed up as whether you’re engaging in innovation and change within an existing business (intrapreneurship) or in a newly formed venture (entrepreneurship). In the extension of this, I’ve also been reflecting a lot about company culture.

I find myself blessed to work in a company where company culture is talked about often, and where our company culture is communicated in a similar fashion all the way from the top. We talk a fair bit about who we are and what we do. Summed up as a single sentence, the company culture boils down to this: We don’t talk about whose fault something is; we take responsibility and do something about it. Most post-event reviews are couched in these terms; we’re not looking to assign blame; we are looking to learn and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Someone – I can’t remember who, and a Google search gives me more results than can usefully be sifted through to find the one I’m thinking of – once said “Failure is mandatory, learning is optional” That’s also part of this idea of taking responsibility rather than assigning blame. The understanding that we will, at some point or other, make mistakes (known in probability theory as the law of large numbers), and creating an environment where there is room to make such mistakes – and learn from them – is something I didn’t know I had been looking for until it was defined in much that way.

Admittedly, there’s certainly nothing new in pointing this out – lots of people have done so before me, and I’m sure plenty of people will say it in years to come, too. Thing is, though, the people saying it – or at least the ones who we know say it – are often successful in their own right. I’m thinking of people like Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, who famously made a mistake that caused a factory to blow up, and Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo who acknowledges the fact that she allows her employees to make mistakes that she might herself have avoided, so that they will learn.

Sure thing, my selection here is highly biased towards success, but the point is still valid. Creating a workplace where failure is understood to be part of the learning process is – I think – a great point to start to ensure success, not only in the short term, but in the intermediate and long term, too. More than that, it’s the kind of place I want to be, to work, and to help make better.

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