NUGGET : Failure is a critical ingredient for complex change and today’s “failure” may be an important step in a larger journey. Don’t give up when somebody says, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” Rather check whether the change is worth pursuing now. Then ask, “What worked and didn’t work last time? How are our needs today different or more intense? What did we learn that can help us be successful this time?


Some people are surprised about the emerging global policy changes related to Syria and Iran.  I am not.  When seen through the lens of larger change dynamics, the new openness and global consensus related to both of these hot spots is quite predictable.  And this lens is relevant for ALL complex changes, including the changes occurring today related to US health care policy.

What is this lens?  In my blogs I will often share frameworks that, as a change agent, I find very useful for figuring out and even predicting what is happening.  These frameworks apply to any big change — in our lives, in organizations, and among nations and societies.  Generally these frameworks contradict the idea that change is a rational, step-by-step process that we can control with plans, carrots and sticks.


Change Framework #1: Failures before Successes.

The “new” (the emerging red curve above) is always tested (resisted) by the “old” (the black curve).  Before something new becomes the way of doing business or relating or being, it inevitably fails.  This is true for all complex changes–a new relationship with Syria or Iran; a new process in your business; a new way of managing that supports a virtual organization; a change in career direction.  In all of these cases, failures are a key part of the process and serve several important purposes.  Failures test the change (is it really a good thing to do?).  Failures help refine the change (few changes are right from the start – thus I question “do it right the first time”) — rapid prototyping of approximations recognizes this.  Failures build and hone capabilities.  And failures signal that something interesting is happening that may lead to a major change later on.

I worked in South Africa before during and after the end of apartheid and have studied and participated in that fascinating and prototypical change process.  South Africa’s relatively peaceful but radical change in government (and in how organizations work and people relate to each other) was not, as many of my friends believe, caused by sanctions.  Rather, there were many diverse experiments and changes and apparent failures that led to the tipping point of the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections (I’ll write about this in a later blog, for it is fascinating).   The failures built capacity and created many of the conditions that led to a new kind of society in that beautiful, diverse country.

So, failure and experimentation are critical ingredients for complex change and today’s “failures” are often important steps in a larger journey.  Don’t give up when somebody is resistant and says, “We tried that and it didn’t work.” Rather check whether the change is worth pursuing now.  Then ask, “What worked and didn’t work last time? How are our needs today different or more intense?    What did we learn that will help us be more successful this time?  How can we build on the capabilities we built in the past?

Having said this, I always also say, “Given a choice, I would like to be the leader or consultant at the end of the cycle of failures – at that tipping point where the new becomes the norm and the red curve above takes off (the new relationships with Syria and Iran?).  But that is often more a matter of timing and building on past lessons, rather than genius or superb change management capability!

Watch for more frameworks that you can use to help you sort out what is happening in all kinds of complex changes–at the individual, group, organizational, and societal level.

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