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The art of successful failure

August 01, 2018

New special workshop of the WU Executive Academy

In the European business context, mistakes and defeats have so far been taboo in companies. Generations of managers have spent a lot of time and energy to work as flawlessly as possible. But what if they used this time more sensibly?

In WU Executive Academy’s new Special Workshop "The Power of Failure", executives learn to accelerate transformation processes with a more courageous attitude to failure, to better achieve their goals by questioning the meaning of their own actions and the framework conditions, and to accept their own failure.

A hand is holding a sparkler over water
In the new workshop the participants sound out their limitations and learn how to make use of their potential of failure in a playful manner.

Anyone who works flawlessly at the Internet company Google receives no praise for this. On the contrary: there is recognition when you set yourself unattainable goals. The company argues that this would push employees to their limits and make them innovative. Streaming provider Netflix already makes it clear in the recruiting process that future managers are expected to have a certain willingness to take risks and the courage to make mistakes. James Quincey, CEO of Coca-Cola asked his employees to make mistakes: "If we don't make mistakes, we just haven't tried hard enough. The Hamburg-based debt collection company EOS goes one step further by awarding the "Fehler des Kwartals" (mistake of the quarter) trophy: Every quarter, this award is given to employees who communicate their mistakes openly and courageously.

„I never lose. I either win or learn.“

Double Loop Learning and the meaning of one's own actions

Failure is not always an expression of mistakes one has made. Sometimes you are in the wrong place at the right time or vice versa. Or both don't fit. Often the failure to achieve goals is also due to the wrong standards that we have set ourselves. "For example, the goal is set too high, too challenging," says Wolfgang Mayrhofer. Then the so-called "Double Loop Learning" begins: one questions the meaning of one's own actions and the framework conditions. Perhaps there are other ways to achieve this goal that have not been considered before. Or the basic assumptions and objectives themselves must be called into question. With the so-called "Single Loop Learning" alone, - one miscalculates oneself for example with the budget calculation and calculates it again - which does not get you any further in complex processes.

A systemic view of failure can be very revealing, Wolfgang Mayrhofer points out: "The question we should ask ourselves after failure is not: Who is to blame? or: Why didn't I reach my goal? It is: What does failure want to tell me about my personal development and the environment I work in?"

Learning (to accept) to fail

As a rule, fear of a negative assessment of the environment is unfounded. Practice shows that colleagues and superiors deal with mistakes much more benevolently than one would expect. True to the motto: "Where there is planning, there are chips." The fear of failure comes rather from ourselves, for failure also has a lot to do with farewell and loss. By saying goodbye to one's own demands, illusionary goals, the loss of the desired recognition, the self-image as a "winner", or success rewards - be it the hoped-for career advancement or the salary increase. "Then it is important to allow oneself the emotions associated with it: sadness, anger, disappointment - and finally the acceptance of having failed," says Mayrhofer.

Are you ready to fail?

The teaser workshop takes place at the WU Executive Academy on 28. September. For more Information about the workshop and how to register, please click here (in German).

Book with the title Failed It!
If we question our failures, we can learn from them.
Portrait Wolfgang Mayrhofer

By the way, this was the opinion of Nelson Mandela, the author of this quote. In the accelerated world of digital transformation, trying to avoid mistakes means one thing above all: stagnation. "Failure wrongly has a negative connotation," says Prof. Wolfgang Mayrhofer, Head of WU's Interdisciplinary Institute for Management and Organisational Behaviour and lecturer at the new special workshop "The Power of Failure. "On the one hand, we fail in individual and organizational life much more often than we win. On the other, we usually learn much more from defeats than through success. Failure offers a valuable opportunity to immerse oneself in a positive learning cycle."

Especially in phases of transformation in companies, failure is the order of the day. Structures are broken down, new processes and responsibilities are tried out, prototypes are tested for customers and experiments are conducted according to the "trial and error" principle. As a leader, you do well to acknowledge failure as an important element of change and to release it from taboos - in order to establish a constructive error culture in which failure is permitted.

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