Failing safer for success

What do such disparate individuals as Thomas Edison, James Dyson, Margaret Atwood, Henry Ford, Marie Curie, Alexander Graham Bell, and Jackie Chan have in common? The shared experience of failure before achieving success. When praised for his dextrous and dramatic throwing and catching of a Chinese fan during a fight scene, Chan dismissed the compliment: “You can do it. Except, do you have the patience or not?” Throwing and catching a fan that way takes countless hours of practice. As is almost always the case, Chan’s success was the culmination of many failed attempts.

Failure can be a touchy subject in some business cultures, even in organizations that purport to encourage and support their people to work in new ways. In operations environments, of course, there can be good reasons for this, as we discussed in a recent episode of McKinsey Talks Operations on the topic.

There might be no safe way to turn off a piece of technology that supports a banking payment system while the IT team tests alternatives. A power plant can’t be shut down while workers spitball new ideas. Once started, chemical refining processes can’t be stopped for a brainstorm. “Live” experimentation on the line in many ops environments is discouraged or forbidden. As our colleague Amy Radermacher said in the recent podcast episode, “if it’s done in their operations, real time, it can actually be quite terrifying, which shuts down creative thinking and innovation.”

However, as we move through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and what some are calling the era of uncertainty, some organizations and their leaders are coming to understand that working in new ways—and learning quickly from failures—is not a peripheral activity but a central and pressing business need.

Enter the capability center

Capability centers are real (and virtual) places where people can work together in new ways, gaining skills that will help drive organizational performance, transformation, and productivity growth. The best examples often include highly realistic and immersive environments, with many making use of the latest virtual reality capabilities. Here, teams can experience something identical to their workflow in its current state, then experiment with new ways of working so that they can experience operations in a potential future iteration.

This toggling between states is a powerful aid to learning new skills. Participants also benefit from the human side of transformation—interacting with new operators and actors, overcoming their resistance to change, and convincing them of the merits of embracing new technologies.

Learning at one remove

A key aspect of successful experiential learning (that is, learning by doing) is that participants feel psychologically safe. They are able and mandated to take risks without negative consequences for their organization or their careers. In fact, the importance of psychological safety is so indispensable to success that some advocate for running experiential training through third-party providers, such as universities, so that participants are fully removed from the culture and DNA of their organizations.

The benefits of capability centers extend beyond surfacing new ideas and practices. Teams that have experienced training in this way tend to be stronger and closer, as groups that have weathered adversity and drama together often are. They also thrive on the energy of fun, which facilitates learning and creativity. In the right context, fun is a useful and positive energy, and observers of successful capability centers have noted how people experiencing training in these environments are more likely to see their organization’s transformation programs as the living, breathing, dynamic journeys they are—as opposed to something that exists primarily in presentations and bullet points.

Practical steps

With AI beginning to scale and productivity growth stalling in many advanced economies, a more active and imaginative approach to training and innovation is hard to argue against.McKinsey has for some time invested in experiential learning through its network of Innovation & Learning Centers, where participants experience new technologies and the way they can change working practices. These centers also help organizations drive adoption, working with them to support employees using new technologies in the best ways—a critical stage of successful technology implementation journeys.

For leaders who want to take their organizations forward in this way, success depends on getting the basics right. A clear vision and objectives should be in place before beginning. Establishing a starting and destination point (or points) is important, to help articulate the journey and its purpose. Deciding which cohorts should be prioritized for training is another key step. Creating customized learning journeys for different groups will almost certainly be part of the plan, as will the honing of training delivery channels. Group virtual experience events, for example, might be accompanied by self-paced online learning modules.

Calling execs for the long haul

Making experiential learning a core part of organizational strategy pays off. One consumer goods manufacturing business, with 18 sites worldwide, took on the significant task of upskilling 3,000 colleagues and was rewarded with 20 new innovative processes, $45 million in cost savings to date, and a 20 percent boost in productivity.

This program and others like it work to their full potential only when C-level executives get behind them. Taking key players out of their comfort zones and keeping them there so that the innovation dividends eventually return to the organization is no small task. And any serious attempt will quickly reveal who is going to struggle with change and who will thrive on it. This will inform hiring for the future, both on the shop floor and at the top. Thanks to capability centers, experiential learning training—an area that has sometimes been viewed as an organizational backwater—might soon become a central pillar of your business strategy, as might the benefits of failing safely. Just ask Jackie Chan.

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Markus Hammer is a director of learning in McKinsey’s Vienna office, and Cinzia Lacopeta is an associate partner in the Milan office.

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