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Failure, vulnerability, and the true nature of change

Failure, vulnerability, and the true nature of change
Published: February 21, 2023
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In our fast-paced, digital world of instant gratification, change can often connote something rapid, spectacular, or even epiphanic. But in reality, change is not an event but a process. And this is never a neat, linear story of progress, with a constant upwards trend and a series of encouraging improvements. Instead, it’s long, messy, and disjointed. Small wins are clouded by multiple false starts, every breakthrough is matched by several dead ends, and each achievement is shadowed by all the downright failures that came before it. But it is in this space that real change happens.  

With every great transformation comes first a thousand failures.

We may think of change as a relatively contained event, but rarely do we consider all the learning experiences that got us to that point, to the space in which we were able to effect and to notice a change. If we were to draw a graph depicting real change, it would actually be a very slow upwards curve, and 90% of this curve would be a squiggly mess of ups and downs, detours, loops, and spirals. But when we talk about change, we ignore the messy part and only pay attention to the final 10% of the process, the sudden uptick, which makes it look as though the change was sudden. We don’t acknowledge the rest of it, partly because we didn’t realise it was happening, but also because it mostly consists of failure. For example, you’ve been to a workshop and have suddenly transformed into a brilliant public speaker – fantastic! But doesn’t this achievement also have something to do with the dozens of terrible presentations you’ve given over the years? What about all the other times you’ve communicated badly? Blundered over your notes? Talked too fast? Been put suddenly and unceremoniously on the spot? And what about the seemingly unrelated string of experiences that have slowly built up your confidence in social and networking spaces?  

Any success story is actually a story of celebrating tiny failures in service of something you wanted to achieve.

This is the true nature of change. And it’s reflected not just on an individual, personal level but also across larger scales. As Impact’s Ewa Rolley writes, the hardest part of organisational culture change is keeping the faith through the years of failure and the apparent absence of progress. And on a societal level, writer and journalist Rebecca Solnit reminds us that the most important social change happens ‘mostly by the accretion of small gestures and statements'. She writes that each transformation occurs ‘by a million tiny steps before they result in a landmark legal decision or an election or some other shift that puts us in a place we’ve never been.’  

Harvard Business School Professor, Thomas J. DeLong, illustrates this change process through a quadrant that provides four options for performance: doing the old thing badly, doing the old thing well, doing the new thing badly, and doing the new thing well. Most people think they can go straight from doing the old thing well to doing the new thing well. However, in order to learn new things successfully, we must first do them poorly. But no one likes being in the ‘new thing badly’ space – especially professionals. Many of us enjoy learning hobbies and new skills in our spare time, but that’s because we don’t mind trying and failing at things that we are not paid to do. In a professional setting, failing publicly can be very difficult. Our narrative of self-worth that we have each built up at work doesn’t allow for mistakes. Yet, it is the occasions in which we feel most overwhelmed, and most destabilised that we learn best. Being comfortable with being bad at something, learning multiple new skills at once, or learning whilst navigating culture shock: all of these are examples of ways in which to cultivate a growth mindset, and a growth mindset is essential when navigating change. 

Learning and sustained change are about experimentation. For example, a scientist’s work mostly consists of experiments that didn’t quite work out, with the occasional breakthrough – if they’re lucky. Another example is found in children – the world’s greatest free experimenters. Immersed in a period of rapid development, toddlers and young children spend all their time in the ‘new thing badly’ space, and they often have a lot of fun while they’re there!  

In parts of western society, we still need to learn how to celebrate failure and find joy in experimentation. Achieving joy in this way requires understanding the value of vulnerability – in accepting that we don’t know what we don’t know. The hero complex that still lingers in western understandings of leadership makes this difficult because this figure of an individual, infallible leader (usually white, usually male) single-handedly leading their organisation to glory leaves absolutely no room for mistakes. A leader imagined in this way has zero scope for taking risks or demonstrating vulnerability. But when leadership is imagined as something more processual, dispersed, collaborative – more human, even – then the possibility for trying new things opens up.  

Experiential learning is about doing experiments. At Impact, this often involves inviting people into discomfort – whether it be a provocative conversation, a challenging team exercise, or being covered in mud and soaked through to the skin on a mountainside. These experiences level team members and provide opportunities for collaboration, honesty, and reflection. They provide a protected environment for people to spend time in the ‘new thing badly’ space, where they can find the impetus for and practise a shift in behaviour. We help our clients learn to cultivate these spaces in their working lives long after they have left us – finding joy in doing new things badly.  

Real change is a process, and those who understand this and who learn to find joy in failure will reap the rewards in their advanced abilities to learn, grow and change. But another unexpected consequence of finding joy in failure is that it also cultivates resilience. Resilience is, after all, about how you embrace setbacks and whether you can recognise that the tough stuff is part of a process that has an endpoint. The work we must do now is to shine a light into the dark places that precede every change and be honest with ourselves and others about how we really got there. We must learn to celebrate mistakes, enjoy experimentation, embrace vulnerability, and dwell in the ‘new thing badly’ space of failure because it is also the space of great and lasting transformation.  

Helen Hibbott is CEO of Impact Asia. Sarah Brammeier is a Senior Consultant at Impact UK.