Embracing failure to find winning formulas


Ali Russell-Brookes is a Royal Air Force Officer and student on the Advanced Command and Staff Course. She is studying for a Masters by Research with King’s College London, examining the implications on leadership for the Future Force.

Using failure in the pursuit of success seems a little oxymoronic when you think about it – but winning is not necessarily about constant triumph. Don’t get me wrong, winning when it counts is vital for the success of any organisation, especially the Armed Forces. After all, a military that finishes as ‘runner-up’ in an armed conflict is not really providing the security and sovereign assurance that justifies its very existence. However, if we learn how and why to embrace failure at the right time, we can be more assured of success when the chips are really down, and failure simply is not an option.

Winning, in either business or warfare, is all about gaining the upper hand. Call it ‘competitive edge’ or ‘operational advantage’, it’s about making bold moves and taking unforeseen actions that your competitors or adversaries simply do not anticipate or have an answer for. History regales these daring ventures, where unorthodox tactics and novel ideas have enabled game-changing outcomes. From my own Service one need look no further than the struggles of Sir Barnes Wallis to perfect the bouncing bomb used in the successful Dam Busters Raids of 1943, or Whittle’s dozen-year endeavour to develop the jet engine. In the commercial sector we can take solace from Thomas Eddison’s ten-thousand failures in his development of the electric light bulb and over five-thousand early prototypes of Sir James Dyson’s dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner.

But none of these revolutionary ideas were spontaneous inspirations of genius that worked at the first time of asking. They were the product of protracted and painstaking planning, experimentation and failure, which allowed errors to be identified and refinements made to enable eventual success. The common factor – the acceptance of failure and the will to learn from mistakes to make the next iteration better. After all, innovation is a matter of trial and error, and we must become comfortable with the latter if we are to genuinely exploit the rewards available. The problem is: failure just isn’t in our nature. The ‘can-do’ military culture and its associated optimism bias can, and has, perilously risked the Armed Forces on occasions; the damning conclusions of Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry painfully illustrate the issue. The fact is there needs to be a tectonic shift in attitude, risk management and blame culture if these two worlds are to successfully collide.

It therefore comes as great reassurance to learn the tide appears to be turning. I conducted research amongst a cohort of Royal Air Force  junior officers and recently-promoted squadron leaders, the results of which suggest that the younger executives of the RAF are both able and willing to embrace failure and adopt the innovative working practices demanded for success in a future characterised by uncertainty, complexity and instability.[1]

Of the 134  officers I surveyed, 97-percent of respondents claimed not to be afraid of failure. At first glance, this figure may seem somewhat unbelievable. But taking a closer look at their attitudes to learning reveals why this cohort has such an optimistic outlook; 98-percent want to continuously develop their skills and knowledge; 95-percent consider themselves reflective practitioners and 94-percent report learning most when things don’t go to plan. In short, failure for this cohort is not considered a catastrophic set-back. It’s an opportunity to reflect on all aspects of the venture, learn the lessons identified and move on to the next step of the challenge with greater understanding. Little wonder 93-percent of them agree that failure must be an accepted risk of innovation.

This positivity resonates just as strongly in their attitudes towards collaboration, with 98-percent enjoy working in collaborative teams who share ideas and experiment with new ways of working. Perhaps most importantly, this collaboration is not limited to the traditional hierarchical structures of the military; 77-percent enjoying problem-solving in teams with informal leadership structures where activity is coordinated by the subject matter expert and not necessarily the highest rank, and 89-percent claim being confident to lead teams in which they are not the most senior rank, indicating strong support for working in the type of formations that nurture creativity. Overall, in assessing their own ability to innovate, 87-percent consider themselves to be good at adapting existing practices or equipment to other purposes, while 90-percent report being good at inventing things from scratch. The future appears to be genuinely inspired.

However, the other side of the innovation equation doesn’t quite add up. Whilst 81-percent of the research cohort claim to be encouraged to be innovative in their work, just over half report their work environments to be risk-averse and not actually allow people to try new things. More concerningly, a third suggest if things do go wrong then a scapegoat is automatically sought, and a quarter report that if they make a mistake, they believed it would be held against them. This suggests there could be an innovation block amongst some middle-ranking leaders, which provokes two intriguing questions: first, why is the hierarchy advocating the benefits of innovative working only to avoid change; and second, is innovation at the grassroots level really being fully exploited if there is such a difference between their willingness to innovate and the appetite of the chain of command to try new things?

So why the anomaly? Claiming to be supportive of innovation is an easy thing to do. It’s what Defence policy tells us we should be doing and it has, until recently, been a key corporate strategy in the form of the RAF ‘Thinking to Win’ programme. But rhetoric and practice are two very different things, and when the implementation of a novel idea suddenly puts your own reputation on the line it seems, in some quarters, there’s a discernible difference between the failure tolerance and risk appetite of some middle-ranking leaders and their free-thinking subordinates. The result – a ‘play-it-safe’ option of maintaining the status quo and consequent creation of an apparently risk-averse culture. This issue of low failure tolerance and risk appetite could also be curtailing the levels of innovation demonstrated by junior leaders. If they have no fear of failure, but their hierarchy is reluctant to change and seeks reprisal or apportionment of blame when things go wrong, do our young leaders actively avoid situations where failure may occur, not because they don’t want to tackle challenging situations, but because there will likely be lasting negative connotations in the event of failure? Could they become conditioned to not challenge conventional wisdom, effectively reversing the endeavours of the Service to encourage innovation? Whatever the rationale, I suggest it’s worthy of further investigation, especially if the key to unlocking innovative working practices across the Service is as simple as mobilising those few middle-ranking leaders who unwittingly frustrate the process. But most importantly, it illustrates the criticality of appropriate failure tolerance and risk management at every level of leadership if the rewards of innovative and collaborative working are to be fully exploited.

There’s no getting away from the challenges of the future operating environment, in which gaining and maintaining the operational advantage will rely heavily on the creativity and innovation of our servicemen and women. The good news is we already appear to have a motivated cohort of young leaders capable of delivering and leading the work philosophies required to achieve the failure-tolerant innovation culture advocated by the RAF senior leadership team; we just need to link the two and empower our people to work differently. To achieve this end-state it’s incumbent on leaders at all levels, but especially for those in the ‘frozen-middle’, to better understand, recognise and manage the risk associated to innovative working practices, to learn to accept failure for the positives it brings to individual and organisational learning, and to permanently banish destructive and outdated blame cultures that destroy innovation and creativity. It’s time for a new mantra – winning is not about being successful all the time; it’s about being successful at the right time…


Image via shutterstock.

[1]Ministry of Defence. Future Force Concept, Joint Concept Note 1/17. Swindon: Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, 2017, p.ix; Royal Air Force. Royal Air Force Strategy. High Wycombe: Headquarters Air Command Air Media Centre, 2018, p.4; Her Majesty’s Government. National Security Capability Review. London: Cabinet Office, 2018, p.5.

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