Failing is Good

May 01 • Resilience

We spend so much of our life trying to avoid failure. What if I fail my exams? What if my business fails? What if I fail as a partner? We are plagued almost daily by our fears of failing, especially in business where we fear a slip up could impact on our reputation or that end of year bonus. Logically we know the fear of failure will pass, it always does but what if we embraced failure as something educative and not embarrassing?

Often, we even prepare for failure before we’ve even failed, and we protect ourselves in advance to avoid potential humiliation. We’ll set ourselves low expectations – “this probably won’t work”, or “I’ll give it a go but chances are it might not be right” and we set justifications – “I haven’t had enough time to prepare”, “I’m not smart enough to do this” or “I’ve got this wrong before”.

In the brilliant book by Matthew Syed, Black Box Thinking, he discusses the importance of failure, of trial and error and learning from failures to enable progress. This isn’t a new way of thinking, but he emphasizes the importance of the human factor and setting the right mind-set around failure. He highlights that the paradox of success; it is built upon failure. We need to create cultures within organisations that have both the system to allow failure and the growth mindset to embrace and learn from it. Avoiding failure leads to stagnation. Think about it; do you work within a business that truly embraces the significance of failure and how you can learn from it?

Syed cites the importance of how the aviation industry has learnt from their mistakes in order to increase the safety of flying. They conduct extensive investigations into accidents and use the black box to learn in order to save lives. He suggests that every business should look to create a proverbially “black box” within their organisation, a mechanism to enable strategies, approaches, work streams

etc. to be tested, trialed and allowed to fail in order to learn and develop.

Businesses must continually send the message that we need to learn from errors rather than being threatened by them. This might sound obvious and you might be thinking, we do this all the time. We do retrospectives, we cover what went wrong and we write up our findings and make changes. However, Syed highlights that all too often we still edit failure, we reframe our mistakes and don’t effectively embrace the precious learning opportunties that exist from truly accepting when we’ve got it wrong. The more we have riding on our judgements or opinions, the more likely we are to manipulate evidence or outcomes that call them into question and thus don’t truly learn when we’ve got it wrong.

Today, in your business, sign post your last failure with your team. Discuss the outcome and consequences of this failure, more importantly explain how it changed your thinking, or your ideas and how you weren’t afraid to embrace the new learnings. The more you can share of your failures as a leader, the more successful your team will become as they will be more open to daring to try and learn. As Matthew Syed puts it “only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity and resilience.”


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