Recognise failure and learn from it

Time and time again I see people trying to cover up mistakes and situations arising from failure. They have somehow decided that it’s a bad thing to have failed and that they will be severally punished for it. In fact, this may actually have been the case in the past and we (managers) are now living with the legacy of poor management practices from the past. This “old management” seemed to only exist to punish and make an example of people who failed. So no wonder people who worked under such management exhibit behaviours of covering up and never ever admitting failure. They do it as a matter of self-preservation and in many cases because that’s the way they believe they should represent themselves to management. Anything less would be considered un-professional in their minds. I believe this is absolutely fundamentally flawed for todays employee or manager.

The problems with this, is that this behaviour does not allow for the person to learn from their mistakes. This is actually an important part of how we learn. If you think back to your childhood, plenty of mistakes were made and in the process you develop. If you touched something hot, you burn’t yourself and you hopefully learnt (or at least after a few times) that touching something hot was not a good idea. Failure is an important part of the learning process and organisations need to be able to try, fail and try again in order to continue to innovate. This is how in most case new ways of doing things are discovered – through trial and error. So a culture where failure is punished is going to result in an organisation that cannot innovate. And if the organisation cannot innovate, I believe it will fail. It might be going strong now, but it will eventually and ultimately fail – but of course they probably won’t admit to their failure even after the administrators are brought in.

What needs to happen is that management needs to create an environment where people feel safe to try something new. If this “new” approach doesn’t work, then encourage and allow people and the team to learn from this failure. Then allow them to try again. Don’t punish those people who are actively trying to innovate, as it will be those people who will most likely come up with the new idea that your organisation needs in order to propel it forward.

Having said that, remember that it’s still important that some thinking is made around why the failure occurred, as if you don’t take the time and apply some intelligence around understanding it, you may end up repeating the same mistakes. The same goes for taking time to understand why something was successful. In my experience very little time is made available in understanding either the failure or success of a project before moving onto the next project. Valuable insights and learnings could be lost by not doing this.

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2 Responses to Recognise failure and learn from it

  1. Tejas says:

    All you have written is so true. I am reading a book by Eric Ries called The Lean Startup that talks about the need to experiment for any organization, irrespective of its size. Also critical is to fail fast and learn from the failure.

    • Matt Grill says:

      Yes – I agree with the idea of failing “fast”. So many times I’ve seen projects linger on for sometimes years, when it was obvious from early on that the project was not going well. People refused to accept the failure, learn from it and more on. They just wanted to keep “flogging a dead horse” as the saying goes.

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