Debunking the Beckettian school of digital transformation

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Learning from failure is a luxury most companies can't afford, says Billy MacInnes

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17 June 2021 | 0

What’s that Samuel Beckett quote that everyone loves to use? It’s the one people always trot out when they’re trying to be smart about failure and success. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Good old Beckett. My first instinct was he probably knew very little about technology but it appears I may have been mistaken. Certainly, The Samuel Beckett Society was able to devote a conference to that very topic in 2018 and there’s also a forthcoming book on the subject. The synopsis for the book includes this sentence: “What emerges from these discussions is the centrality of technology for Beckett’s creative imagination, a factor that is equally enabling as it is limiting.”

Which shows how little I know about Beckett. Nevertheless, I was reminded of that much misused quote by a piece of research from the UK about the experience of businesses during the pandemic. First the good news: 56% of them had successfully adopted one or more new technologies since the pandemic began. It also reported 54% said using new technology had been key to help overcome the challenges posed by Covid-19.

 

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Now the bit that brings Beckett to mind. The research from Studio Graphene found 30% had scrapped one or more unsuccessful digital transformation projects launched since the beginning of the pandemic. In other words, one of the key points of the research seems to be that, when it comes to digital transformation, “failure is an option”.

From the outside, one in three seems quite a significant number but Ritam Gandhi, founder and director at Studio Graphene noted: “Failure is part and parcel of innovation, so these findings should not discourage businesses that are working to upgrade their technology.”

That may well be true but I’m not sure I’ve seen that particular message on any brochure, website or e-mail from technology vendors trying to attract prospective customers.

Ganhi goes on to remark: “It’s great to see that confidence has not been knocked by the unsuccessful turnout of some IT projects, with the vast majority planning to ramp up their tech investment over the coming 12 months.”

Try again, basically.

I’m guessing the figures cited for digital transformation project failures by UK businesses are not too dissimilar for those here in Ireland or anywhere else for that matter.

The intriguing point here is that when technology companies sell the virtues of digital transformation, it can often be framed in terms of the dire consequences for companies that fail to undertake these projects and make their businesses more innovative. In other words, if you neglect digital transformation, your company could die or suffer at the hands of more innovative rivals.

But it’s very rare to hear those same proponents provide the disclaimer that while digital transformation can be very positive, it may fail to live up to its promises and you could end up scrapping projects completely.

It’s a bit of a tough choice: fail if you don’t implement digital transformation projects versus the one in third chance of your digital transformation projects failing if you do.

Failure in a business context is not as lenient as suggested in those lines by Beckett everyone keeps repeating. Companies may fail once but most of them don’t have the luxury of failing three times (count them): Fail. Fail again. Fail better.

In any case, in this context I’m concerned some people might have a very different interpretation of what “fail better” means. They might take it to mean a spectacular collapse that leaves nothing behind except abandoned buildings, irate customers and penniless staff because, when it comes to failure, you can’t do much better than that. Not to contradict Beckett but maybe we should treat his words with a degree of caution and think a bit more on what they might mean rather than what we want them to mean.


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