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“Failure intelligence in a complex, dynamic world.”

"We all see and know it: the world is complex and changing at a rapid pace. Yet we try to maintain control over our lives and work as much as possible. The question is whether this means we are not only trying to avoid unwanted things but also shut ourselves off from pleasant surprises. But more importantly, often we cannot control or master everything at all and we have to learn to navigate our existence. In almost everything we do, we have no guarantee how it will turn out and have to try things with the chance of not getting what we expected or hoped for."

prof. dr. Paul Iske

Oprichter Instituut voor Briljante Mislukkingen |Hoogleraar | Business | Innovatie

What does this mean? In any case, we should neither throw in the towel nor avoid as many risks as possible by just doing nothing. If you do nothing, nothing fails, but your whole life is a failure… Of course, there are times when it is better not to take risks. When a pilot comes to me through the intercom cheerfully telling me that he/she is in an experimental mood today, I would probably also prefer to get off the plane (unless it has already taken off by now, of course). Rather not take risks when it is not necessary and the consequences could be dire. On the other hand, even within an aviation organisation, things have to be able to go wrong. When a marketing campaign of such a company flops, it is unfortunate, but also no more than that. As long as you try something that benefits the world, you do your best, you don’t take too much risk and you learn from it, then your failure is not just a failure, but a brilliant failure. That is a step forward and not backward and it is something to be proud of and appreciate another for!

Fear is never productive
If you ask people what they fear, you get a list of things like disease, spiders, death and also failure. Why are we so afraid of failure? First of all, we try something because we get happy about the possible outcome. When we succeed in baking a delicious cake, we can enjoy it afterwards or share it with others. If that fails, then of course we bale. But there is another level of fear, more existential: what will happen to me, what will people think of me, if I don’t succeed? Will I no longer count, will they make fun of me, will this have consequences for my career, etc.? This fear often has a paralysing effect. Sometimes fear helps us, for instance when we encounter a lion and our body (if not stiffening) gives us extra strength to run away. You end up losing anyway, of course, but you have longer fun… But fear at work, at home, at school or the sports club is never productive. It makes us feel bad, we don’t do things that would have been worth trying and we try to forget the result as soon as possible. And so then we learn nothing.

Every human being has the (human) right to try, fail (brilliantly) and learn from the result. But how can you best learn from failure? For that, it is good to look at the concepts of intelligence and learning. What is the essence of intelligence? These days, there is a lot of talk about AI, or Artificial Intelligence. I don’t find the idea of Artificial Intelligence appealing. Perhaps it would be better to talk about Complementary Intelligence so that we can have a healthy discussion about the relationship between humans and machines. Anyway, intelligence boils down to pattern recognition. The computer (or human) recognises a pattern in information, such as numbers, images, situations, etc. and then, based on a previous confrontation with that pattern, knows what the conclusion or course of action is. The computer knows the pattern and the corresponding action and applies it when this pattern is recognised in another situation. We humans do the same. When I come home in the evening, I often see something moving there and I recognise that pattern because that is my own spouse. Based on pattern recognition, I know what to do and thus I increase the chances of having a nice evening. Learning means nothing more than being confronted with new patterns and corresponding conclusions and being able to recognise them later.

Pattern recognition
Why this focus on pattern recognition? After analysing many hundreds of failures, we found 16 universal reasons for failures. In all the failures we have studied, one or more of those patterns occur. When you have all those patterns ready, you can do a lot with them. Before you even start something, you can investigate whether there are patterns that could play a role in the activity. And you can then take action on them. We call this ‘Forward Failing’. You learn from the failure before it has occurred. Actually, the most enjoyable way of failing and learning. Highly recommended to apply when starting something new, such as a project. You can also use the patterns while you are working on something or afterwards, to draw lessons that you can later share or reuse yourself.

AI? Perhaps it would be better to speak of Complementary Intelligence

An example of such a failure pattern is ‘The empty seat at the table’, which refers to situations where key parties are not involved in the preparation and/or implementation of a project. The likelihood that they will become obstructive is significant. Or ‘The junk’, the failure pattern that refers to parties who sometimes go ahead with something when they know all along that it will be nothing. And if you ask why they went ahead with their project for so long, you get answers like ‘We still had budget’, or ‘We already invested so much in it’. Not the best reasons to stick to something. So we do ourselves and each other the most favour by increasing our FQ, failure intelligence quotient’. Create a safe environment for trying and learning, be open to the unexpected, learn from the failures and use and share the lessons. In doing so, we encourage people and organisations to want to see and seize opportunities. And then we will not only have failure costs, but also failure returns.

I wish readers much success, but also the occasional brilliant failure!

prof. dr. Paul Iske

Oprichter Instituut voor Briljante Mislukkingen |Hoogleraar | Business | Innovatie

Paul Iske is hoogleraar Open Innovation & Business Venturing en oprichter van het Instituut voor...

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