learn from failures

Learn from (and Celebrate) Failures

Failing might be embarrassing. It might be painful financially or it could make you worry about your reputation. But you know what? Every failure is an opportunity to learn.

If we – and our teams – don’t experience failure, we might not push ourselves to do better. Feeling comfortable almost never gives us an edge on the competition.

Think about a few times in your career or personal life when you attempted something and failed. Grab a piece of paper and jot those failures down on the left side. Then, on the right side, make a point-form list of what you did to recover from each failure or how you overcame the challenges.

Whether it was work-related or personal, I suspect many of those failures gave you:

  •         A new perspective and quite likely a win
  •         Lessons in managing adversity
  •         An opportunity to reflect and figure out what you could have done differently
  •         Ideas about how to avoid this situation in the future
  •         Resolve 

Many times, our coaching clients discover that it’s their failures – not their successes – that made them stronger leaders.

Similarly, we can learn a lot about other people by asking about their experiences with failure.

In fact, any time that you’re interviewing potential new hires or consultants – or maybe considering which team member to choose for a particular project or promotion – asking candidates to tell you about two or three times they’ve failed and what they did to overcome the failures can be very illuminating.

Learn from failures

Why should we consider failure instead of just focusing on past successes? Because we learn about other people (and ourselves) by how they (or we) have coped with failure. The thing is, failing isn’t evidence of weakness or incompetence. It’s evidence of trying.

By reflecting on failure, we can learn if someone:

  •         Has the courage to take risks (or is averse to risk-taking)
  •         Learns from mistakes (or is too proud to admit them)
  •         Stretches to learn and grow (or stays safely stagnant)
  •         Takes accountability and actively seeks solutions (or shifts blame)
  •         Can accept defeat (or lives in denial)
  •         Is resilient and seeks new avenues (or doesn’t try because of a fear of failure)

You see, the way folks handle failure demonstrates their character. Whether people are willing to risk failing is important (we recently discussed reasons why it’s important for leaders to find the emotional courage to make mistakes and learn from them).

How leaders, in particular, view failure has implications for businesses and staff. Consider that:

American businessman and inventor Thomas Edison (whose many inventions included the incandescent electric lightbulb, phonograph and motion picture camera) didn’t let failures stop him from continuing his work, saying famously: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

French fashion designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel saw value in failure, saying: “Strength is built by one’s failures, not by one’s successes.”

Finding the courage to risk failure served Thomas J. Watson, the chair and CEO of International Business Machines (IBM) from 1914 to 1956, well. He advised: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

Internationally successful author, screenwriter, and producer J.K. Rowling has said: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

I find it interesting that these highly successful people – from diverse industries, different cities and even different time periods – don’t seem afraid or ashamed of failure. Instead we see from their statements that:

  •         Taking risks means accepting there will be some failure
  •         Failures are learning opportunities
  •         Perseverance is critical
  •         Fear of failing can limit the potential for success

As leaders, we need to remember that how we react to failure (for ourselves and for our teams) can significantly affect the performance of our team members.

Celebrate your failure

We have to learn from and even sometimes celebrate (yes, celebrate!) failure. Here’s how:

Keep the focus on learning. If you focus on the failure and it’s punitive, no one will want to admit they made a mistake. They will either stop trying new things or start hiding the failures. Instead, take opportunities to debrief and discuss what went wrong. This is the opportunity to look for ways to improve the process (with metrics!), examine lessons learned and brainstorm other solutions. “What can we learn from this” is far more powerful than “what did you do wrong?”

Build the framework. If you’re thinking right about now, “I get it but there’s no way I want my team going off in all directions on ill-thought boondoggles,” then build the framework for your team of what is an acceptable risk of failure. Help define the parameters. When is complete failure okay, or even useful, in learning something new? When is some failure okay if there’s a mitigation plan in place? When are you unwilling to accept any attempts to improve (and thus, no acceptance of failure)? If you can define what fits into each category, and then live up to it in how you react to failure, your staff will learn to try.

Feel the feelings. Failing is hard. We’re not trying to pretend it’s okay – or that there shouldn’t be accountability. Certainly, some organizations would rather ignore or punish failure than manage it, but rallying everyone to get back up after being knocked down and focusing on learning from mistakes can make for a stronger and more determined comeback.

Walk the talk. Make sure that positive performance reviews and raises or bonuses are not all tied to successes only. If you want to foster an environment of learning, growth, and innovation, your team has to see that everyone is evaluated for wise effort and not just successful results. Celebrating aspects of failed projects (“we learned some valuable lessons here” or “because of this project we knew to focus on this aspect”) will reinforce the idea of learning and improving.

Try new approaches. Some tech companies give their staff time to work on their own ideas and experiments for new products or services for the company. Other corporations take a cold case approach to failures and encourage staff to revisit them from time to time to see if they come up with solutions or new ideas.

Encourage discussion. When everyone on your team feels it is safe to raise concerns and admit there are problems, it’s easier to give up on something that isn’t working and change direction. There are ways to build a stronger team so that everyone feels comfortable innovating, being accountable and taking risks. An environment that encourages agile thinking can save time, money and resources – and pave the way for innovation and (you guessed it!) success.

Coach’s Questions

How have you reacted to failures in the past for yourself? For your staff? Will your approach to failure change now? What can you do to encourage your team members to take measured risks, accept failures and learn from them?

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