Oh the Sweet Taste of Failure

My memory is a bit foggy now but when I was a child and was asked many times what I would like to do when I grew up, I never thought that I would like to fail. I am pretty sure this is a universal reaction. Children simply like to emulate adults who do great things. We grow up clearly setting our sights and hopes on succeeding at something. Any brush with anything remotely close to failure is quickly dispensed with using one of our greatest human talents: rationalising. We are excellent at that. Harvard University great, Daniel Gilbert, says it best; ‘humans are wonderful rationalisers’.

failure It is not too hard to understand why we simply avoid focusing much on failure. But, isn’t there is something seriously essential in pausing to think more about failure? Far from being an original question, it is also far from being one that has been asked often. It is not failure that is the issue. It is the lack of learning from it that is, as has often been observed by generations of business strategists. There has been a growing number of advocates for better understanding of what failure can teach us, what value it actually provides and why its existence is in fact indispensable for true success. Success that matters.

And we then arrive at collaboration and strategy. Collaboration is very susceptible to failure; although it should be observed that we simply know little of how much and with what kind of impacts because there is no reliable data available. Our general attitude to failure is also the principal reason for avoiding collaboration. Businesses that try to build success on collaboration is also wary of collaboration. Thus the need to soften our excessively conservative approach and realise that collaboration is at the heart of the future of business success, precisely because it employs an entrepreneurial process.

An immediate point worth noting is that collaboration as a practice is almost universally defined in simplistic terms. Working together is basically what people think of when the term collaboration is mentioned – collaborating means working together. And yet, that same definition is a bit tautological because nobody really works ‘un-together’. The nature of work is such that one way or another, we do work together. So the real essence of collaboration is actually in the way that working together is conceived and executed. It is with this in mind that we can start to see that collaboration is in fact one of many types of working together which is principally marked by features such as: entrepreneurial attitude, willingness to engage beyond simple transactions, considering the collaborating partners’ goals as part of their shared goals and so on.

Along with these factors the ability to integrate failure into the collaboration process is perhaps one of the most neglected and ignored. Collaborating parties, particularly at an inter-agency, enterprise to enterprise level, have to focus on governance and management process. Let’s face it, collaborations fail. But, because they are not the type of permanent systems that businesses maintain, there is often an increased risk that one failed collaboration can force a business to abandon it all together. Thus the irony of it all; failing to learn can lead to true failure. The real solution is to learn from the failed elements of the collaboration, not expect to avoid them every time, and, most critically, develop the necessary depth in thinking about collaboration that is relatively unique to your business.

As far as collaboration strategy goes, it is good to be reminded that it is as much a strategic process as it is creative and adaptive. A little bit like marriage – while there are some common things make for a happy marriage, what really works is not formulaic, but rather improvised between two partners. So, it is with collaboration – it is open to bespoke, creative ways of making multiple parties achieve successful business outcomes – as long as they can accept that failure isn’t a bitter pill to swallow.

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