Leadership X.0
02 January 2021

Operating in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) contexts requires the development of a failure culture to become aware and acquire knowledge of all the aspects that characterize failure. 

“The projection of each failure is a success” 
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts” 
W. Churchill
“Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.” 
L. Armstrong

We are used to consider failure merely in its negative sense, as something unpleasant, to be avoided, which damages our reputation. This mindset influences our way of thinking and acting. However, in complex and uncertain contexts, such as those that we increasingly inhabit, failure becomes very probable, if not inevitable, as the evolution of the context is unpredictable and the probability of making incorrect choices and, therefore, failing grows considerably. In these cases, it is necessary to broaden the perspective with which we look at failure to consider also its virtues. In complex and uncertain contexts, it is necessary to develop a real failure culture, through which becoming aware, and acquiring knowledge, also of the positive aspects that characterize failure. In this way, one could more easily appreciate the learning and the improvement potential that lay behind a failure and the opportunities that arise after learning the lesson resulting from failure. For the Leader X.0, failure represents a daily companion and an essential element to navigate VUCA contexts.

In the conventional wisdom and in the prevailing mentality in schools, in the family and in working environments, failure does not have a good reputation. Failure is something to be avoided because it represents a defeat, because it is a source of embarrassment in the eyes of family, friends and colleagues, because it negatively affects our reputation, because it demolishes our certainties … and certainty, as we know, is a need we can’t give up. We are, therefore, “coded” to avoid failure and, consequently, we also avoid the opportunities that failure can generate, we do nothing to avoid the unpleasant consequences that failure could trigger. However, we cannot help but notice that those who fail, even in a striking manner, and find the strength to react, often turn failure into success. When this happens, one might be led to think it was just a matter of luck… but it is not (only) luck. 

Contrary to the past, the world we live in is increasingly complex. We live in a world of connections which enable us to interact with others by exchanging information and communicating at any time globally. These connections have created unprecedented links among individuals, as a result of which changes, shocks, decisions and actions by an individual have immediate repercussions on other individuals, by directly and indirectly affecting their situation. These effects, in turn, produce feedback on the individual who originally triggered them, by forming a network of constantly evolving interdependencies.

Interdependencies give rise to complexity. Complexity arises when it is not possible to identify the sequence of events, shocks, decisions and actions that determined the current situation, nor it is possible to anticipate how the current situation may evolve as per the events, shocks, decisions and actions that can happen or one can undertake. Complexity, obviously, generates uncertainty: it is impossible to exhaustively identify all the possible scenarios which the current situation might give rise to.

In a context with these characteristics, what role does failure play? Is it possible to avoid failure, as one would be inclined to do in a stable, predictable, elementary and certain (SPEC) context? In a VUCA context, does it make sense to avoid failure at all costs or, rather, does it make sense to think of failure as an inevitable occurrence and as such something that needs to be reckoned? If failure is to be confronted, are we equipped to face it? Probably not. How should we change our vision of failure to cope with the challenges to which a VUCA context confronts us with? Is it enough to change our perspective on failure or is it necessary to start developing a real failure culture?

In VUCA contexts, the old conception of failure must change: from an unpleasant incident to avoid, failure becomes the only possible context exploration tool. Obviously, we do not envisage, much less recommend, to fail superficially or naively, but rather to abandon the negative and paralyzing perspective on failure we are used to. In a complex and uncertain context, failure is highly probable, if not inevitable. In these circumstances, it is highly likely that the context makes it necessary to use competences that we do not have, to deploy tools that are not available to us, to consider solutions that we have never experimented. In these cases, it does not make sense to avoid failure but it becomes critical to constructively embed the generative potential of failure in our lines of thought and action. 

However, it is not enough to change our mindset of failure. It is necessary to develop a real failure culture, from childhood, when words are just “sounds” and not yet meanings, when children have not yet developed their language to associate a negative meaning to the word “failure”. Developing a failure culture allows growing aware, and gain knowledge, of all aspects around failure and not only of the negative ones, appreciating the improvement potential that lies behind failure and the opportunities that can arise after learning the lesson of a failure.

Through the development of a real culture, failure becomes a valuable tool to support the exploration of VUCA contexts, with which it will be possible both to learn new tools and to improve our awareness, by revealing hidden aspects, thought routines, and unconscious limits. Once these hindrances and inhibitions will have been overcome, failure will allow us to expand the universe of possibilities everyone will be able to access and his achievable thought and action potential.

In a VUCA context, the fundamental challenge is no longer “doing things right” but “doing the right thing”. So, the winning perspective is no longer to avoid failure and learn to do things without errors, but rather to use errors and the ensuing failure to understand what the right thing is. Failure becomes the individual’s daily companion and a key element to successfully navigate VUCA contexts.