You think failure is hard? Not near as hard as learning from it

You think failure is hard? Not near as hard as learning from it

Failing is hard. But not near as hard as learning from it.

Thomas J. Watson, former CEO of IBM, once said, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

It sounds good. Yet it’s not wholly true.

Sure, risking failure is crucial for success. Not stupid failure – the kind that results from testing the depth of water with both feet. Rather, the well-considered variety: the ‘intelligent failures’ essential to advance through uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Yet having the courage to risk failure, even the smart kind, is not the full “golden ticket” to achieving great things. The other half of the ticket is the ability to learn and apply the lessons that failure holds.  

And therein lays the problem.

While failing is always hard, it’s not nearly as difficult as learning from it.

The chief barrier to learning from failure is not its complexity, it is us. It stems from our resistance (unconsciously directed by fear) to confront our failures honestly, to examine them thoroughly, and to identify their deeper causes.

In my recent  podcast with Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, she unpacked the common elements of intelligent failure codified in her new book Right Kind of Wrong (an excellent read!) She also categorized the key ways people fail to learn from failure, helping us avoid the double whammy of ‘failing twice.’

“Learning from failure isn’t as easy as you’d think.” – Professor Amy Edmondson

Zoom up high enough and you can generally see how every failure holds the seed of an equal or greater benefit, over time. However, you have to do your part to find the seeds of learning and facilitate their application to reap rewards over time.

To help you do that, here are three questions to help you get the very most out of your failure. 

#1: Am I honestly examining the cause(s) of failure for maximum learning?

 A study by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach found that the most common response to failure is not to learn from it, but to brush over it. The researchers found that failure is “ego threatening, which causes people to tune out.” ‘Mine’ your failure for every shred of insight and nugget of value, mindful that complex failures rarely have one simple cause and the higher you rise, the less likely you’ll think it’s you. Research by Sidney Finkelstein from Dartmouth University found that senior leaders are less likely to consider themselves as a source of failure. 

#2: Am I taking responsibility for my role in failure? 

Gary, a functional EVP in an industrial business, was charged with the rollout of a project in his business. While his CEO was fully behind it, the project fell far short of producing the desired outcomes. Gary attributed it to a complex mix of factors – market disruption, insufficient integration across the business, an incompetent CFO… his list was long. At no point did Gary take any ownership of his role in the low employee engagement and any hint that it may have been a partial leadership failure was met swiftly with defensiveness.

Stories like Gary’s – of people overly attributing to external causes and culprits – are not uncommon. Failure is threatening to our sense of identity. It’s why part of my work with leaders is guiding them to do the ‘inner work’ (what I call ‘vertical development’) so they aren’t reacting from defensiveness but responding with curiosity and a genuine desire to grow – themselves and those they lead.

Failure is an event, not a person. Only when we can separate who we are from the results we achieve can we rise above the egoic temptation to brush over failure or deflect it onto others and instead, put failure under the microscope and look at how we may have contributed to it, even inadvertently, 

As I have learned from my failures, sometimes a lack of courage to confront awkward issues or intervene promptly perpetuates a problem and magnifies the fallout. My learning: Conflict delayed = conflict multiplied. 

Of course, no one sets out to fail. We want to ‘win’. Yet having the courage to be vulnerable in the wake of failure, to own our role (even if through our inaction), and to apologize when needed, deepens trust in ways that sharing only our wins never can.

#3: Am I sharing and scaling my learning to benefit others, including my team and business? 

Leaders play a magnified role in fostering a learning culture that de-risks intelligent failure. Sharing lessons from failure makes it safer for others to follow suit, optimizing the value of failure, and accelerating collective learning to ‘fail forward faster, together.’ Learning organizations such as Microsoft put in place systems and processes to capture and scale learning to do just this.  

We can never accurately measure the leakage of value, opportunity cost, and wasted resources from failing to learn from failure but we shouldn’t underestimate it.

In today’s fast changing world, accelerating the pace of learning builds edge and creates a meaningful competitive advantage. 

As you work toward your bravest goals for the year ahead, I hope you will shelve perfectionist tendencies and grant yourself permission to risk ‘not nailing it’ more often than feels comfortable.

In the final ledger of leadership and life, the only real failure is the one from which we learn nothing. In which case, we’re failing twice.