The Art of Failure

Cate Gutowski

Failure is something we don’t talk about enough in business. In fact, it’s practically a four-letter word. In the industrial world, we’re trained that failure equals incompetence, which equals…out of a job. Yet, Silicon Valley startups teach us that failure is cool. Some even wear it as a badge of honor. In the software world, failure equals cool, which equals job security.

So, why do we see failure so differently in the industrial world? Why can’t we view failure more like the software world?

Freedom to fail is freedom to succeed

I work for a company that was founded by the gentleman who famously said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

That spirit, which was alive and well at our founding, is back again and gaining traction. Right now, we are embarking on the digital transformation of a global sales force that encompasses 25,000 sellers in 180 countries, on a very aggressive timeline. It’s not easy. It’s messy. And it’s complicated.

To activate this ambitious initiative, our teams are using a program at GE called FastWorks, which is based on Lean Startup principles. FastWorks empowers anyone in the company to experiment, using a process of testing and learning. By reflecting on the learnings with your team, you can quickly iterate, or make decisions about whether to pivot or preserve. All the while, we strive to keep the customer at the center of everything we do.

In other words, we’re living the philosophy of Edison: If you aren’t failing, you aren’t learning. And if you aren’t learning… well, you just aren’t making progress.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we’re purposefully building a culture of failure. I’m saying we’re building a culture where our talented colleagues are not afraid to fail. There’s a big difference.

What can your teams do when they’re free to fail?

1. Think big: What’s your moonshot?

There’s a reason John F. Kennedy didn’t commit to putting a man on a mountain. He thought bigger. Bolder. He shot for the moon, literally and figuratively. When you’re not afraid to fail, you’ll never settle for mediocre. Instead, you’ll get the best from your teams—every day, every time.
What is our moonshot?

We created a clean, customer data model for the first time in GE’s 125-year history. Sure, we could have created a shiny new tool that would be an impressive part of our digital transformation. But shiny tools fade over time. And we are thinking long term. After all, as someone recently pointed out to me, we are leading the largest digital sales transformation in the world. Bigger thinking comes with bigger risks. But it also comes with bigger rewards.

2. Act fast: What can you do in hours and minutes, not days and weeks?

One of my favorite new leaders that we brought into the company from the software world challenged me early on: “Cate, what can we do in hours and minutes, not days and weeks?”
The thought being, if you can push yourself and your teams to do what is uncomfortable (and work with speed), then you can get a minimally viable product out there for the teams to react to. Sure, that means you often fail fast. But you also learn fast. You quickly learn what works, and what doesn’t. Speed is important in the instant, on-demand world of our customers. An added benefit of speed? There’s no time to overthink. Overthinking rarely leads to overachieving.

How are we acting fast?

We originally thought that it would take two years to build a solid customer data foundation, because that’s what all the experts told us. But, we challenged ourselves to do it in a year. The result? We were able to launch Phase I of our Commercial digitalTHREAD—our connected, digital ecosystem with clean customer data and new digital products for our sales teams globally—in just eight months. By creating a solid data foundation, we’ve even made it possible for GE teams around the globe to connect with colleagues working on a specific customer in seconds, versus what used to take on average three weeks of emailing and calling. When you’re free to fail fast, you’re free to succeed just as fast.

3. Stop talking and start doing.

This is related to acting fast, only here it’s less about speed and more about inertia. Remember your high school science class and Newton’s First Law of Motion? A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Simple stuff, really—but, if you’re not moving forward, you’re essentially moving backward. So get moving already. Take the first step. Put the ball in motion. Because the hardest part of any project, large or small, is simply getting started. As my kids have pointed out to me, sometimes we need to do what Nike says, and Just do it.

Don’t fear the F-word

Failure is not a bad word. It’s simply a byproduct of progress. When we learn to embrace failure — in the true spirit of learning and growing from it — we are embracing our own success.

I believe in this so strongly that every night at the dinner table I ask my kids, “What did you fail at today?” I don’t ask this because I want them to fail. I ask because I want them to know it’s okay to try and fail. I want them to grow up learning that the only way to grow is to try something new, and do something that’s outside your comfort zone. One of my favorite mentors at GE once told me, “The only jobs that truly enable you to grow are the ones that make you uncomfortable.” I couldn’t agree more.

So, what did you fail at today? And, what will you learn from it to make a better tomorrow?

Cate Gutowski, vice president, GE Commercial & digitalTHREAD, leads the company’s effort to transform how GE’s global sales force utilizes technology to drive customer success across all GE businesses. In this role, she guides teams that are innovating new technologies in artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics to drive productivity and enhance the customer experience. She also leads GE’s global leadership through storytelling initiative, “If You Can See It, You Can Be It.”