Do you still remember learning to ride a bike as a kid?

I do. I remember my dad taking the training wheels off my bike, which was – as your first bike usually is – too big for me. I remember the thrill of launching myself full steam down the road. In hindsight, I wonder what my dad felt like, watching me wobble off, only partly in control. I also remember that first ride ending with me face-down on the pavement . I still have a scar on my right knee to prove it.

We all know that learning to ride a bike without a few scrapes and bruises is impossible. Yet when it comes to realizing change in companies, that’s exactly what we expect people to do: get on a bike for the first time and ride the darn thing like they’ve done it a hundred times before.

Change is so prevalent in companies these days that a recent article in HBR stated that more than 90% of CEOs believe their companies will change more in the next five years than they did in the last five. That’s a hell of a lot of people who need to learn to ride a bike the coming years.

So here’s the million dollar question: how can we expect people to learn to do business in ways that are completely new to them, if we don’t also encourage them to take risks, try, and fail?

We need to normalize failure in our business culture. That in itself is an entirely new way of thinking.

The past century of the industrial economy has focused on creating smoothly oiled machines of optimised structures and processes and predictably perfect outcomes. Risk was to be avoided. Failure was considered defeat.

But if that is no longer the world we live in, shouldn’t our way of thinking about failure also change? Should failure not be seen as a necessary part of progress and shouldn’t we look at it as “failing forward” instead of failing as defeat?

If we look at change through the lens of Prosci’s ADKAR model, here are five questions that leaders need to ask themselves at each stage of the change journey to encourage people to have an open mind, open will and open heart to the changes we expect them to make:


In the awareness stage of change, we need to make sure that people understand the “why?” of the change. Have we been clear about the reasons for the change? Do people understand what will happen if we don’t change?

The “fail forward” question here is: Do I allow people to ask difficult questions that make me uncomfortable or which I am not immediately able to answer? In change, leaders must role model to their employees how to be in unclear or uncomfortable situations.


In this phase, we want people to say “yes” to the change. We want them to personally commit to the contributing to the change. This is probably the most difficult stage in the change process because many personal and organizational factors influence a person’s willingness to be part of it.

The “fail forward” question here is: Do I actively encourage people to experiment, take risks and fail as part of the change process? Because if people don’t feel safe enough to test the boundaries and risk failure, why would they risk changing?

As mentioned in the HRB article, one of the greatest examples of encouraging people to “fail forward” comes from Michael Alter, former president at Sure Payroll, who created the “Best New Mistakes” competition, in which he rewarded employees for providing the most unique and interesting mistakes.


In this phase, employees gather – both formally and informally – the information, training and education necessary to know how to change. Understanding how to change may be a simple process or it may require a huge shift in thinking.

The “fail forward” question here is: Am I prepared to give employees time to change? Just as learning to ride a bicycle doesn’t happen overnight, neither does change in people. It takes time, practice and effort. Leaders need to see change in people as a process, not as the result of a workshop or training from which they emerge fully able to operate in the new state of the organisation.


Ability is about turning knowledge into action. But there is a distinct difference between knowing how to do something and being able to do it. In fact, the gap between knowledge and ability can often be quite large. When employees begin to display ability, change begins to be realized.

The “fail forward” question here isWhen looking at people’s ability to do something new, do I reward perfection, or do I reward progress?


While effecting change is hard, sustaining it over the long term is even more difficult. That is why reinforcement is often considered the final, and critical, stage of a change process. It includes actions such as recognitions, rewards and celebrations that are tied to the realization of the change.

While such actions are crucial, the “fail forward” question here is: Do I continually role model and reward how to lead and work in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment? 

Back to the bicycle example.

My dad trusted and encouraged me to get on that too-big-bike, knowing full well that the chances were big that I probably wouldn’t have a very successful first ride. When I fell, he came over to reassure me that it was part of the learning process and to encourage me to try again. If he had expected perfection of me on that first ride, I would have been disappointed in myself for failing and discouraged to try it a second time. Thank God he didn’t. After all these years, I still love riding my bike. In fact, I am training to complete a 200 kilometer mountain bike race in South Africa later this year. Thanks dad!

#leadership #change #organizationalbehaviour #engagement

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