Failure is part of life. When something doesn’t happen as intended, some people do not want to call it ‘failure’. They reframe it as ‘learning’. I have not failed, I have learned. In this context the greatest error is not about failing it is about failing to learn.
In traditional business cultures there is often a keenness to hide failure. In many organisations the custom of ‘cover your ass’ continues unabated. On the other hand some business gurus encourage us to fail so we learn quickly: as in one of the mantras of Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, ‘fast failure is good’. Guy Kawasaki, a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur, distrusts elitism and entitlement in favour of passion and trial and error. There is a perception that in today’s world we are increasingly required to experiment, learn, share lessons, and move on. This world calls for personal awareness and resilience.
Failing is necessary
In innovative or entrepreneurial fields, the idea of not only learning from failure, but the importance of failure, is even more pervasive. Without the willingness to take risks, including the risk of failing, nothing new, or at least, nothing significantly new, would ever be discovered. Thomas Edison is famously reported to have tried over a thousand light bulb designs before finding one that worked.
At one of our leadership programmes, someone fell over. They realised it was happening as it was happening, but no corrective action was possible to stop them from hitting the ground. After lying on the floor beside the overturned chair for a few seconds, two of us asked if they were okay, the person got up and replied that whilst they had landed badly and hurt their leg, they were physically fine. They managed the pain of the physical hurt as well as, if not better than, the embarrassment of seemingly not to be able to sit down on a chair without falling off!
They then did a number of things:
- They brushed the mud off their trousers as they realised that people might wonder what had happened, and they didn’t want to draw attention to the fall and their own clumsiness
- They checked to see if they had hurt themselves more than they had thought
- They checked the chair for damage
- They went through how the accident had happened
- They moved the chair to a different place on the grass
- They checked the stability of the chair in the new position
- They sat down more carefully and thoughtfully than the first time – they did not fall over
- They sat comfortably for nearly an hour and worked in an intensive skills development session
- I remembered how quickly they recovered, learned and adapted from failure.
Failing to learn
Failing to learn in business can be damaging to a range of elements depending on the particular context. Failing to manage relationships can damage trust and thus pace, reduce delivery effectiveness on products and services, significantly diminish the ability to attract and retain staff, and be financially very costly. Reputation failure will affect future sales (and profit). Environmental failure can impact on community relationships as well as wider reputation – for global companies this can affect an organisation’s licence to operate.
Organisations that refuse to learn tend to repeat behaviours that are not working, but work well enough, especially for those in power positions. So long as they have resources they can pay the cost of not learning.
When resources become tighter most organisations become more interested in either finding a person to hold to account, or if they are interested in becoming healthier, get ‘real’ about learning faster. Often, to learn faster, we need to not only to ‘know about’, but also need to develop ‘know how’ and the ability ‘to act’ accordingly.
 Lane Wallace on May 6, 2009
Failure as a Path to Learning: Putting Organisational Learning to Work (798kB)
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