Learning From Failure

Not a Mistake

The problem with the word mistake is that it comes packaged with a weight of condemnation and is usually accompanied by shame, disappointment and sometimes even the fear that someone may stop liking us. But we need our mistakes. Without them we can’t learn or grow or change. If, instead, we think about mistakes as feedback in a loop of continuous experimentation and improvement, we can appreciate them as positive input into our development rather than weapons of self-destruction. 


Learning from Failure

There is a lot of talk lately about learning from failure. In Fact, there are a lot of (TED) talks about it too. Whether we make a little mistake or orchestrate a truly massive fail, as Allan Savory describes in his TED Talk, errors are inevitable. How we react to them is less certain. Individuals often beat themselves up over their mistakes, indulging in negative self-talk that demotivates, demoralizes and can leave them even more prone to error.

Organizations are more inclined toward denial, rather than self-reproach.

According to Rita Gunther McGrath in Failing by Design; Harvard Business Review, “Most organizations are profoundly biased against failure and make no systematic effort to study it. Executives hide mistakes or pretend they were always part of the master plan. Failures become undiscussable, and people grow so afraid of hurting their career prospects that they eventually stop taking risks.”

Even in the face of this clear bias, many organizations talk-the-talk about learning from past failures and mistakes, and may even have a defined process for capturing the “lesson learned” when things go wrong. They just don’t walk-the-walk so well: in spite of a professed acceptance of failure as a source of learning, the reality is that few organizations effectively learn from their mistakes.  

In this video interview, Amy C. Edmondson, Professor at Harvard Business School, discusses strategies for learning from failure in organizations—starting by doing away with the “blame game”.  She concludes that organizations that fail more quickly, and then effectively extract the lessons to be learned from failure, will enjoy enduring competitive advantage.  

Ashley Good and Dr. Natasha Blanchet, of the J. W. McConnell Foundation, have created a webinar and supporting facilitation activities for cultivating a “fail forward” approach. In the webinar Ashley provides an overview of this approach, which is “grounded in years of generating failure reports with Engineers Without Borders, Canada”

Failing by Design

In Failing by Design, McGrath goes on to state “…failure is inevitable in uncertain environments, and, if managed well, it can be a very useful thing. Indeed, organizations can’t possibly undertake the risks necessary for innovation and growth if they’re not comfortable with the idea of failing.”

More recently, the notion that being good at failure is an essential skill in today’s rapidly changing environment has led to the birth of sessions like the “Fail Fest” at the 2013 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference where attendees raised a glass to failure and shared three tips for squeezing the learning from inevitable mistakes:

  1. Confront it: Trade-in the ostrich routine and be the one who outs the elephant in the room. Own your personal failure’s and confront those that are dragging down your organization.
  2. Be a champion for change and ask the hard questions: Turn the lens back on yourself and your organization. If you see good people walking out the door, something is wrong and you need to ask some hard questions.
  3. Give it time: Be patient. Change is hard. It will take time to shift perception away from blame toward experimentation and learning.  

Failure: an Opportunity to Re-Calibrate

In the words of Zig Ziglar, “Failure is an event, not a person.” Instead of focusing on having made a mistake, think of it as a “miss”, requiring a course correction or a change of tactics. Remember, if you hit the target on the first shot, you will never know if you hit it because of your efforts, or in spite of them. On the other hand, when you miss, correct, and then hit a bulls-eye—you definitely own the success!


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