Making Failure Work for You by Failing Smart, Failing Forward

SELCO Foundation
3 min readFeb 23, 2023

Arvind Lodaya and MA Sriram discuss the need to accept failure, and encourage it in the development ecosystem.

Societal Change is complex, and programmes and interventions often operate amongst many moving parts. To be able to navigate this complexity, organisations need to nurture leadership that is open to taking risks and dissecting their successes and failures. In a workshop on Creating Organisations that Fail Forward Professor Sourav Mukherji from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and Arvind Lodaya, founder of Lodaya Consulting, moderated by Huda Jaffer of SELCO Foundation, discussed some of the ways in which that can be achieved. The discussion highlighted the need to move away from the stigma of failures in organisations, highlighting the difference between mistakes and failures and how organisations aren’t able to differentiate between the two.

Both speakers in their individual briefings gave anecdotal evidence of large-scale enterprises successfully ‘failing forward’. Professor Sourav cited the example of NASA, to consider how many times they had failed, there is almost always a 50 per cent chance of their projects failing. Drawing parallels between NASA, the Everest expedition and micro-finance, he said,

“Sometimes we are too quick to judge organisations on failures without fully understanding the domain in which they operate. The aviation industry is prone to learning quickly from its mistakes to effectively avoid failures because of an open feedback loop. The medical industry, however, is still highly prone to error with so many patients dying each year, an indication of a closed loop. It all comes down to the attitude and culture of organisations and domains.”

Organisations should ideally try to avoid mistakes, but should accept that failures are unavoidable. The speakers discussed ways to promote a culture of failing in organisations by having more open feedback loops of information to correct errors and mistakes. They highlighted the need for these entities to create an environment that is open to accepting failures and understanding the procedural reasons why one must have failed in the first place.

Promoting the acceptance of failures of organisations to reflect during the scale stage and how difficult it can get to scale. Challenges mainly in terms of scaling innovations. When organizations have a successful business model or a highly innovative idea, the world is meant to ask how the organisation can scale this model or idea. It is inevitable. That’s why focusing on building processes and having an open culture of failing is necessary to be able to scale interventions as well. Prof. Sourav also highlighted the importance of how to scale and fail forward simultaneously. Building processes is more critical than just focusing on or romanticising the concept of scale. Acknowledging that scaling is important, but recognising why and what should be the best way to learn and fail forward.

An interesting point by Arvind Lodaya was to highlight the ‘Zen of Failing’ to promote openness around failures. He illustrated the concept of the ‘Zen of Failing’ using nature as an example, “There are no failures in nature. It is all an effective feedback loop. Organisations should accept the Zen of Failing and learn to fail forward.

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SELCO Foundation

SELCO Foundation seeks to inspire and implement solutions that alleviate poverty by improving access to sustainable energy to underserved communities.