Failure as a form of helpful feedback

I'd given myself the task today of starting chapter 3 of the new edition of my book. But instead – I've decided to write on learning from failure which is a topic I discussed in several conversations this past week. However, in the spirit of things, I'm wondering what I'm learning from failing to stick to my chapter 3 schedule. Two things:

  • I need a refresher on important v urgent. (Remember the Eisenhower matrix?)
  • I will try out StickK's Commitment Contract 'a binding agreement you sign with yourself to ensure that you follow through with your intentions'.

The learning from failure conversations came up in my facilitating two different sessions of a workshop on resilience (see my blog on resilience here) because what people lit on in the definition of personal resilience was the idea that resilient people have the 'ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback'. The consensus was that this is a really hard thing to do both individually and organisationally.

Why should that be? People offered several reasons all applicable at individual or organisational level. Here are three of them:

  • It takes courage to see that there are things to learn. A commoner approach is to blame or scapegoat for failure which leads people to be fearful of exposing any failure in the first place. A better way is to 'forgive and remember', Bob Sutton explains. 'You forgive because it is impossible to run an organization without making mistakes, and pointing fingers and holding grudges creates a climate of fear. You remember – and talk about the mistakes openly –so people and the system can learn. And you remember so that, even though you have tried to retrain people and teach them, if some people keep making the same mistakes over and over again, then, well, they need to be moved to another kind of job'.
  • It takes 'stickability' in the face of failure. This is an attribute of resilience that doesn't feature in definitions but we thought is part of it. Someone mentioned a Michael Jordan video that he'd seen years ago on this. I took a look at it. It's a few really powerful words on failing over and over and over again. This stickability is why he succeeded – because he used each failure as feedback to help him learn to do things better.
  • A similar example of stickability is Pepsico: 'Just a few years ago, it wasn't clear whether Indra Nooyi would survive as PepsiCo's CEO. Many investors saw Pepsi as a bloated giant whose top brands were losing market share. And they were critical of Nooyi's shift toward a more health-oriented overall product line. .. But now, Nooyi 'exudes confidence … The company has enjoyed steady revenue growth during her nine years in the top job, and Pepsi's stock price is rising again after several flat years'. She got to this place by using 'fail fast and learn' principles that she explains.
  • It takes formal systems, processes and policies, that remove the individual and collective fear of failure. Without these, in many organisations failure is stigmatised. In his book, Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed explores this tendency. One of the book's reviewers summarised: 'the world comes down hard on those who are deemed failures. The desire to avoid such opprobrium prompts people to cover up mistakes, argues Syed. Doctors tell patients of "complications". Police fail to drop cases against people accused of committing a crime, even after clear evidence emerges of their innocence. Politicians plough on with policies even when it is obvious they are not working.' Contrasted with this is the aviation industry which – through black boxes recording systems, investigative processes and policies around reporting failures – has formalised learning from failures with great success.

If you are hearing organisational phrases on the lines of 'it's safe to challenge', or 'we learn from failure' or 'we tolerate mistakes' are you sure that you have the attitudes, infrastructures and mechanisms in place to make it so? It may be worth checking.

How are you designing organisations to encourage members accept failure as part of life and to help them learn from it? Let me know.