Friday, February 26, 2016

Learning to Fail Well

Each of us defines our own successes and failures in different ways. Also, not all failures are created equal. Some can be preventable especially when they happen in known circumstances and controlled environments. Others are designed to occur such as those that happen when working in the context of discovery and innovation. The bottom line is that we are all looking for success not failures. But when failures do happen along the way, we have to learn to make the most of them and use them to fuel success. 

I participate in a weekly (Thursday 5:30 PST) chat on twitter - #lrnchat. Our topic in the second week of February was 'Learning from failure.’ At the end of the chat, I realized that learning from failure is a deeply reflective activity but it is more than that. It is a process. However, both as individuals and in an organizational context, we don’t do very well with learning from failure. Why? 

Well, our first reaction after a failure is to quickly move on. We want to put it behind us and not deal with the negative emotions that breed from examining a failure. We want to protect our self/ego, avoid shame and punishment and maintain the status quo. Besides, we are not mentally ready for the process. Analyzing and investigating failure takes time, patience and skills. One has to accept before one can reflect and with each step, peel the layers of failure to learn. It is not an easy task. Another roadblock is that failures don’t sit well within the traditional 360 degree annual performance reviews since failures are typically considered to be a bad word. We find ourselves gripped inside a culture that does not openly discuss mistakes. At the end of the year, biases creep in and we tend to ignore data and believe what we want to believe without investigating as deeply as we should. 

Perhaps you have read about Bruce Schneier's classification of failing badly versus failing well. He talks about these concepts as applied to systems and network security and describes how a system reacts to failure. To generalize my understanding of the concept, failing badly is when there is a complete shutdown of the system with no recovery. Failing well is when the failure can be compartmentalized or contained and there are redundancies or options to recover and there are built-in systems that provide early warning signs. Perhaps, the same concept can be extended to personal and professional failures. 

So, what does it take for us fail well? 


- Know and accept that failure will happen at some point. Acknowledge that as a given and continue to put your energy and passion into things you like to do. 

Focus on learning and experimentation when trying anything new. Don’t live in the fear of failure. If you fail, celebrate that you tried something new. Then, adapt as you go along.

Keep your focus on the process not the outcome. That way, you can detach ego from the outcome and accept failure more easily. If you fail, remain grateful for the opportunity. 

Plan for failure as you plan for success. Look out for warning signs and identify failures early on. Learn to recognize small mistakes that can be corrected easily and prevent catastrophic failures.

All failures are not useful. Don’t make stupid mistakes. Don't make stupid mistakes twice.

Change your response to failure. Explore failures, don’t run away from them. When failures do happen, learn to pick yourself up and continue on. If you need motivation, picture a child learning to walk. Remember failure is temporary. 

Failure analysis is challenging and time-consuming and perhaps an emotional roller coaster. But it is worth it.

Innovations happen because someone somewhere learned from failure. Failure is the best training ground.

The mindset of embracing failure starts with me. It is 'I' and collectively 'all of us' who are the seeds that sprout the right organization culture that is open to learning from failure. Be a role model and don't be afraid to say I failed.

Finally, to fail successfully and learn from failure, share it with others. Be bold and talk about your defeats. Your failure is adding value to your life and enriching the lives of others who will get an opportunity to learn from it. 


As I was drafting this post, I came across a post by Dan Pontefract where he shared his experience of attending an event where three entrepreneurs told stories about their failures. 

It was interesting to observe our need for storytelling and how people devise their own platforms that make them feel safe and comfortable to share stories about things that didn’t quite work as expected. It is a refreshing mindset where failure is encouraged within the right context but more importantly, the discussion of failure is acknowledged and recognized by the community. In that sense, sharing stories about failure is rewarded not penalized.