Leadership Solutions from Read Solutions Group: The Lesson in Failure

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Lesson in Failure

Whether in business or in our personal lives, we are often stalled by a fear of failure. What if someone has already done this? What if no one buys this? What if it doesn't work? What if I'm not good enough? What if I'm embarrassed?

What if, instead, we look at failure as an opportunity to innovate, to grow and to excel?

If you are succeeding in everything you do; you may not be taking enough risks. Failure, setbacks and less than full success can lead to increased resilience, maturity, and understanding. If you are constantly failing in everything you do; you may not be learning from your mistakes. Failure is, in fact, part of progressing in life and work.

In his book, Failing Forward: How to Make the Most of Your Mistakes, John C. Maxwell suggests that every failure provides a lesson. When we have learned the lesson, our actions will change. The challenge becomes learning the lesson.

The first step in learning is to manage the emotional side. Don't suppress it. Failure rarely leaves you feeling good. However, if you can accept failure as a necessary step along your path to progress, and moreover, understand that failure doesn't make you a failure; you can more forward to the next step.

Take action. Jerome Bruner, Harvard pyschologist, is widely quoted as saying, "You’re more likely to act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action." Take a small step, celebrate that success, let your brain release some dopamines, deepen the neural connections, and the next step will become easier, both in action and motivation.

Avoid the tendency to work harder. Lack of success or failure frequently drives people to work harder, put in more time, and analyze more deeply. They follow the motto of "try and try again".

Evaluate. With project management, Bob Sutton in his article "Learning from Success and Failure", suggests that every project should be followed by an event review. Research has shown that teams learn fastest by experiencing and thoroughly evaluating challenges and failures. He recommends if a project is successful, the event review should focus considerable time on looking at what did go wrong. If the project is unsuccessful, the team should debrief on both the successes and failures.

Adapt. Innovation is not a singular event, rather it is the cumulative result of one idea building on another. Charles Leadbetter argues for a cycle of try, fail a bit, learn and adapt as the key to innovation.

Assess. Knowing yourself, your team and your process fully enables a clear-headed assessment of the strengths and options you bring to the next try. Shore up the weaknesses by enlisting help, adjusting the process, modifying the target, or developing new strategies.

If we can keep the big picture in mind, embracing failure becomes an easier task. Failure may be the key to innovation, it may be the key to a new strategy, it may be a signal to try something new. What is clear is that failure contains a lesson. It's up to us to find it.


Additional readings:
In Praise of Brilliant Failure
The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations
Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design
The Power of Failure: 27 Ways to Turn Life's Setbacks into Success

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