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Posted by on Feb 16, 2010

Learn from Failure or Fail to Learn

It may sound almost heretical in an achievement-driven culture to spend much time thinking or talking openly about failure.

After all, the reality is that we’ve all seen many times how individuals, teams, departments and even entire organizations will go to extreme lengths to demonstrate that whatever happened wasn’t a failure, or at least their fault. Admitting failure is often viewed as something like the ultimate sign of weakness.

This is unfortunate, and in the long run it is very costly. Problems and mistakes swept under the rug don’t generate very good information about how to prevent them next time. In fact, in a truly “successful” problem cover-up scenario, the rest of the organization or outsiders aren’t even aware there was at problem at all.

You may be able to recall examples of where your own organization — and perhaps you — kept making the same mistake out of a refusal to fully explore what went wrong the first, second or third time.

For another perspective on this, we turn to an ironic source: the very successful. We can ask, what do they tell us about failure, learning, and the relationship between the two?

One cannot read the biographies of very successful people without being struck by how many times they failed. Edison was noted for experimenting hundreds of times, failing each time, until he hit on the solution that resulted in the electric light bulb. One high-performance leader once told me “I fail every day, but I learn from it.”

Healthy organizations treat failure differently than dysfunctional ones. The former, rather than denying the existence of a problem or failure, actively monitor for it, and then invariably ask themselves, usually in a safe group setting, “What has this taught us?”

Certainly, succeeding is more satisfying, rewarding and enjoyable. And there is without question valuable learning in the successes. But people who succeed over the long haul often admit that the best learning they ever experienced – the learning that later set them up for spectacular successes — came out of the difficult periods of failure. It seems as though failures provide more specific, focused information on what was a blind spot or glitch.

So, the next time you experience a problem or failure, you can ask yourself the following questions as a way of harvesting as much knowledge as possible. The problem will sometimes just pass or be forgotten, but the learning won’t.

* What do I know and what do I not know about what happened?
* What is factual and what is interpretation, belief or opinion?
* What exactly was it that surprised me?
* What was my own, individual role in the creation of this problem?
* Is there a pattern of any kind in the problems I’m experiencing?
* What roles were played by others?
* What, in retrospect, could I have done differently?
* What am I going to do now about the problem?
* How will I know if it is successful?
The absolutely hardest part of this process is that complete openness to the information is required. There can be anything from sensitivity to vulnerability to hurt feelings.

You may find, however, that being honest with yourself equips you to get there faster next time – that it’s a bit easier to detect flaws and errors that created problems. This is nothing but personal growth, and reminds us of the old story of the master martial artist who was praised by an observer, who commented, “You’re always completely balanced.”

The old warrior replied, “Actually, I’m slightly off-balance much of the time – I just get back to neutral position faster.”

We know that failure, large or small, is inevitable, so why not learn from it?

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