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A Look In The Mirror: Learning From Failure

Leadership

Businesses, or any organizations, for that matter, are part of a system of actions and reactions. Sometimes action leads to failure, and sometimes action yields success.

No matter the outcome, there are teachable moments that can ensure one failed action doesn’t end with defeat. Implemented strategically, these failures can lead to new knowledge and, ultimately, future success.

Learn How to Learn

Every organizational leader intuitively knows the importance of learning at both an individual level and an organizational level. The biggest challenge is showing employees how crucial it is to learn from every action — whether it was a success or failure. Individuals inherently know that reflecting on a failure and learning from it can be beneficial, but how do you stress the importance of reflection for the company’s overall good?

Enter the human resources (HR) department. A good HR department ensures that learning from successes or failures is part of the employee development plan. We participate in shared learning sessions and make them part of employee compensation and benefits programs. Just having an HR department that puts an emphasis on this kind of reflection shows the importance of transparency and accountability to employees.

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Admitting failures and allowing yourself to be vulnerable is never easy, especially in front of peers. But, if everyone — from executives to rank-and-file employees — participates, it helps remove the negative stigma associated with discussing failures. In highly competitive organizations, it’s imperative that every executive is aligned so politics don’t hinder participation.

If this process is new to your company, I’d recommend making your leaders the guinea pigs. Having them share past failures should make the rest of the employees more comfortable and willing to approach superiors in the future about problems. Share stories about those who have failed, but refused to let failure slow them down. Thomas Edison patented more than 1,000 inventions, but we only know him for a few. Had he quit before the light bulb, would technology be as advanced as it is today?

3 Questions to Address

Every team needs to ask itself three questions after any experience:

1. What did the team accomplish?

This gives your team a chance to share “small” victories and tell their stories. Even a small win boosts confidence in your employees, and that confidence can give your team the momentum needed to tackle bigger challenges.

2. What did the team learn?

This is not what they would do differently. Don’t go from failure to immediately trying to fix it; instead, reflect on what new knowledge or information you gained from the experience. You have to know exactly what happened before you can analyze how to change your actions.

3. What would they have done differently?

This is the most challenging, yet most rewarding, step in fixing a problem. It asks you to identify the problem, as well as evaluate the alternative options. Finding other options can be hard when you were confident the first solution you tried was going to succeed.

These questions work only if you know how to approach your team with them. At a previous employer, I launched a series of “Failure Forums,” where we would ask these questions in an open environment where all employees could attend. We would save time for a Q&A session at the end, which allowed employees to collectively bounce ideas off each other and gain insight into complicated issues. These discussions allowed people not only to share their failures, but also to learn from others’ missteps.

These learning opportunities will help your employees grow, thus helping the most important people: your customers. Learning in this type of environment leads to cooperation and interactions you can’t have in a one-on-one conversation. As an employee, you didn’t even have to be involved with the issue at hand. Those employees directly involved could explain the problems to the rest of the team and receive feedback. An outsider’s perspective can be refreshing, as it often yields questions that someone directly involved may not have thought about.

Embrace Failure and You’ll Never Be Defeated

Learning from failures won’t always yield success, but simply moving on from them without reflection will surely lead to a mountain of mistakes you’ll eventually have to overcome. Failing at some point is inevitable, but failing to learn doesn’t have to be.

Every experience has a teachable moment, so embrace these moments and encourage your entire team to get involved to tackle issues as they arise. If you implement an attitude of reflection and accountability, you can motivate your team members to adopt this attitude as well.

Failure is our chance to learn from our actions, so encourage your team to be disciplined enough to absorb these lessons. You might find that small failures will ultimately lead to momentous gains.

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