Jobs and the Future of Work

5 ways the best leaders learn from failure

Ashley Good
CEO and Founder, Fail Forward
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Wildly successful people from President Obama to Oprah Winfrey, J.K. Rowling to Richard Branson, Warren Buffet to Michael Jordan have incredible stories of failure and have generously and courageously shared them with the world. While their circumstances differ greatly, the thread that joins them all is that failure made each person stronger.

Our most successful leaders are those who are able to learn and grow from these experiences. Yet dealing with failure well is not a skill we are ever taught how to do. It is a skill we either learn the hard way, or not at all. 

Considering the importance of this skill to our future success, both personally and professionally, below are five ideas to help us learn and grow stronger from failure.

1. Start seeing success and failure as two sides of the same coin. There is a tendency to attribute success to our own brilliance and failure to external factors (e.g. other people, luck, timing, environment, market conditions, etc.) when, of course, both success and failure are caused by a combination of our own brilliance – or lack thereof – as well as various external factors. Examining both internal and external antecedents opens up the possibility for more learning.

What is more, the complexity of our work means just about everything we do – whether it is raising a child or delivering a product to a client – will have elements of both success and failure yet human tendency towards bifurcated thinking has us labeling them as one or the other. Under examination, success and failure start to look a lot alike so we should, as Rudyard Kipling suggests, “meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same”.

2. Avoid the error of attributing blame to the first reasonable factor. It is more likely many interrelated issues are at play. Most failures worth talking about are the result of layers of decisions and actions based on assumptions, beliefs, personalities, etc. so when things do not go as planned it is worth taking a few moments to consider all the reasons why.

Deepening our understanding of the sequence of events leading to past failure makes it obvious we had multiple opportunities to stop it, and therefore, multiple ways of preventing similar errors in the future. Asking “why?” five times is a popular technique used to think through some of these root causes and is useful as long as the focus is on building our understanding of how we contributed to the failure instead of finding someone or something to blame.

3. Take the time to turn individual learning into tangible changes and improvements. Many organizations have processes in place to learn from failures. You may call them after action reviews, post mortems, or something else entirely but all too often the learning achieved through these processes is not translated outside of the meeting room or pages of the lessons learned report. The act of investing time in learning is commendable but ultimately useless unless it leads to changes that prevent the error in future.

Whatever learning process you use should lead to a list of action items that includes timelines and accountability checks. The action items do not have to be set in stone; they should adapt as you learn what works and what does not. The point is to make it easy to translate learning into organizational change. Otherwise your hard-earned lessons sit on a shelf collecting dust.

4. Do not fall prey to loss aversion. It is well known we feel the pain of loss more than the satisfaction of gains even when they are quantitatively equal. In an organizational context, that intense pain of loss when we try something that does not work can cause us to pull back, stop taking risks and give excuses to stick with the status quo.

Protecting our ability to take risks and innovate requires changing how we relate to the experience of failure. Instead of focusing on the loss we have to frame each failure as an opportunity to accelerate our learning and become better and stronger in the long run. The organizations that are best at this start by framing everything they do as experiments where the goal is learning.

5. Be smart about how you invest time and resources in learning. No one wants to go through an intensive, organization-wide after action review when the situation is better suited to a quick conversation with a colleague. Conversely, if other people need to understand the failure to avoid making similar mistakes, the learning should not happen behind closed doors. Pick a process that is appropriate for the scale and type of the failure.

The four ideas listed above apply regardless of the scale. This last idea simply asks you to consider the causes and the consequence of the failure. Obviously, a failure caused by incompetence looks very different than a failure caused by experimentation. In the former, learning might focus on an individual’s capacity, the latter might look at how to evolve the experiment. Similarly, understanding the consequences makes a huge difference in how we deal with a failure and should help us determine how many and which people to involve in the learning process as well as how to turn that learning into change, and eventually, success.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Ashley Good is the CEO and Founder of Fail Forward, which supports organizations to learn, innovate and build resilience.

Image: A Businesswoman is silhouetted as she makes her way under the Arche de la Defense, in the financial district west of Paris, November 20, 2012. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann.

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