Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful.
I had enough of the F-word last week, it wasn’t a good week. Burnley got relegated from the Premiership, the outcome of the General Election left me utterly depressed and I failed my grade five saxophone exam by two marks after I fluffed the sight reading piece. Suffice to say I played Joy Division and Radiohead tracks back to back on Sunday to lighten my mood.
So, I need to confront the F-word taboo this week and build some agile thinking into my routine. Failure is inevitable sometimes and often out of our control, but we can choose to understand it, to learn from it, and to recover from it. No one likes to fail, and while we all know the importance of learning from mistakes, individuals, teams and organisations can struggle to bounce back. How can we see the experience as an opportunity for growth instead of the kiss of death or shattering our dreams?
In his 1950 film Rashomon, the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa depicts the story of a rape and murder four times, from the perspectives of four characters. The message is clear- different people can see the same events in dramatically different ways – and this phenomenon is particularly evident when it comes to failure.
An outcome that an employee regards as satisfactory may be seen by her manager as entirely unacceptable. When a project is an unequivocal flop, colleagues disagree over the reasons why. These reactions, and their effect on workplace relationships, often become more problematic than the original event. As a result, how people respond to failure is of great importance. It’s often harder to lead a team past a failure than it is to help one person. Some people may be very resilient and others might feel more bruised.
Not all failures are created equal, so an understanding of failure’s causes and contexts will help to avoid the blame game and institute an effective strategy for learning from failure. Although an infinite number of things can go wrong in organisations, mistakes fall into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent:
Preventable failures in predictable operations Most failures in this category can indeed be considered ‘bad’, they usually involve deviations from a defined process or routine operation. With proper training and support, employees can follow those processes consistently. When they don’t, deviance, inattention, or lack of ability is usually the reason.
Unavoidable failures in complex systems A large number of failures are due to the inherent uncertainty of work in that a particular combination of issues may have never occurred before. Triaging patients in a hospital emergency room, responding to enemy actions on the battlefield, or running a fast-growing tech start-up all occur in unpredictable situations where system failure is a perpetual risk.
Intelligent failures at the frontier Failures in this category can be considered ‘good’ because they provide valuable new knowledge that can help an organisation leap ahead and ensure its future growth – which is why they are sometimes called ‘intelligent’ failures. They occur when experimentation is necessary, so discovering new drugs, designing an innovative product, and testing customer reactions in a brand-new market are tasks that require intelligent failures – in essence it’s about discovery and ‘trial and error’.
At the frontier, the right kind of experimentation produces good failures quickly and you can avoid the unintelligent failure of conducting experiments at a larger scale than necessary. Tolerating unavoidable process failures in complex systems and intelligent failures at the frontiers of knowledge won’t promote mediocrity. Indeed, tolerance of these failures is essential for any organisation that wishes to extract the knowledge such failures provide.
But putting the type of failure to one side, as a leader of an organisation, how do you face up to your team at the point of failure? How do you dust yourself and your team down, and go again? Here are some thoughts.
First, take control of your own emotions Research shows that a leader’s feelings are far more contagious than a team member’s so do whatever you need to move on from the disappointment yourself so that you’re ready to help your team deal with their crisis recovery. You need to be genuinely in control of your feelings or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality at a time of failure
Give them space At the same time, you shouldn’t become a ‘beacon of positivity’ before the team is ready. It’s okay to let everyone wallow in negative feelings for a little while before saying ‘Let’s move on’. When you acknowledge the disappointment – with comments like ‘This is tough for us all’ – you’re not just stroking people’s emotions you’re facilitating a critical appraisal of the situation.
Be clear about what went wrong Don’t cover up what happened or resort to simple dismissive comments that abdicate responsibility. Avoid phrases like ‘let’s look on the bright side’, instead, be clear – ‘We didn’t get the result we wanted because they were more talented than us’. When you focus on the facts, you can call it like it is without being demotivating.
Don’t point fingers It’s more important to focus on what’s to blame, rather than who is to blame. If the fault really does lie with one person or a few people, then talk to those individuals in private and focus on their actions, not character, something like: ‘Here’s the mistake you made. It doesn’t mean you’re not in the team, but we need to understand why so it doesn’t happen again and we can move on’. You can also address the group but be sure to do it in a way that doesn’t single anyone out.
Shift the mood At some point it’s also important to move on from analysing the failure to talking about what comes next. The mutual commiserating and examination of what went wrong is useful only up to a point, then pushing the team to look forward and be more strategic, open-minded thinking and discussing how you will avoid similar mistakes in the future. Ensure the tone is positive and energised.
The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, yet organisations that do it well are extraordinarily rare. This is not due to a lack of commitment to learning, but the lack of a learning culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with, and responsible for, facing up to and learning from failures.
Paradoxically, people feel psychologically safer when leaders are clear about what acts are blameworthy – and there must be consequences – but if someone is punished or fired, tell those directly and indirectly affected what happened and why it warranted blame.
Optimism is key, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, after all, isn’t it the lack of fear of failure, a willingness to stumble during a quest, that gives the motivation to spur us onto success against all odds in the first place? Don’t let failure remove your spark, but having said that, embracing failure to encourage entrepreneurship is misguided.
Failure should not be celebrated, yet there is a macho cult of failure at times surrounding entrepreneurship. Accepting that failure is a natural part of doing business, and developing the right perspective on its value, will help fix the fear of failure. But having said that, having done the post-mortem on the analysis of failure, how do you then bounce back from failure and turn it into a success? Here are some thoughts about ‘bounce-back-ability’:
Define success on your own terms Failure is a subjective term, so why pin your sense of self-worth to something that hasn’t happened as you wanted it to? Success is how high you bounce back having hit the bottom. You should not be okay with average. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.
Find the value in failure I could give you all types of statistics for entrepreneurs that eventually succeeded after abundant failures, and it’s not only about monetary success, but about personal success, bouncing back and continuing to move forward on the path that makes you happy.
Act on what you’ve learned Anything can be useful if we learn from it and then do something with that knowledge. We know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Alas there is no magical formula for telling us what to keep doing and what to do differently. We have to gauge for ourselves what’s working and where we could improve and then we have to keep going, knowing full well there are no guarantees.
Focus on the process, not the results Just because you didn’t reach a specific outcome, that doesn’t mean you can’t still do what you’d like to do. It’s not over just because you didn’t hit one specific outcome. If you keep going, you will inevitably identify new possibilities – adopting a process-oriented approach means it is easier to be mindful and focus on the action steps.
Stay Positive Keep your self-belief and keep your eyes open, you will inevitably see opportunities when the mist clears. It’s the difference between walking with your head held high reaching for the sky and walking with your gaze on your feet and seeing only puddles.
Find opportunities in adversity I forget where I recently read this story, but a young boy was looking to get a job. Everywhere he went, he heard they weren’t hiring, so he decided to set a new goal: for each company he visited, he would either get a job or sell them a “Not hiring” sign which he would make.
Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, but it should never stop you trying because you’re afraid to do so – reflect, learn, go again. Failure is a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change course, or you’re not ready yet. Failure is not thinking you’ve failed, rather that you need to go better next time.
We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need is also the same – to realise success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point.
Whilst we want to be positive and optimistic, there are times when life doesn’t go according to plan and we get disappointed – last week showed me that. The challenge is to ensure that the impacts of our disappointments are minimal and to bounce back as quickly as possible whilst still acknowledging the let-down and not living in denial.
I read an interesting blog by James Clear (http://jamesclear.com/), which inspired me. It talks about the two identities we all have – Big Me and Little Me. Big Me is the version of you that comes out when you’re at your best, the identity you display when you live up to your potential, and achieve your goals. Big Me is who you are when you’re fully engaged in life rather than partially engaged. Big Me is you on top of your game.
On the other hand, Little Me is the version of yourself that shows up when you’re inconsistent, when you lack focus, and when you fall short of your potential. Little Me is that side of you that makes excuses and hesitates when faced with uncertainty or discomfort, and sulks in the pool of failure.
Here’s the thing about Big Me and Little Me – they are not different people, they are two versions of the same person and these two versions of yourself compete to show up on any given day. So what makes the difference?
We all have good days every now and then, days when we feel motivated, productive, powerful, and healthy. But having a good day every day is really hard. What makes the difference between the days when you show up as the Big Me version of yourself versus the Little Me version of yourself? It’s all about choosing your attitude, do you kick-start or sit-back?
For me, keep pushing yourself forward and maintain your enthusiasm for life is the answer – to quote Winston Churchill, Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. For me, maximum effort is the minimum requirement, I simply keep going, being relentless, being limitless, but not simply doing the same thing as last time. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress. I’ve written it on a post-it-note and pinned it to my study wall. Just like Burnley and the Labour Party, I’ll bounce back, with agile thinking, clumsy fingers and the need for more practice won’t stop Big Me passing that saxophone exam again.