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Why Failure Teaches Success despite our Overwhelming Focus on Successes

For the past decade or two positive language has become the norm and ‘problems’ have almost disappeared from our vocabulary, being renamed ‘challenges’ and other less daunting labels.

According to vision and mission statements and corporate communication, the world is full of “number one”, “world class” and “groundbreaking” companies that do not seem to fail.

Why does so much corporate language seem so decoupled from the human realities that we all know and experience – realities, which we know perfectly well that failures are part of.

Successful career trajectories are rarely the one-tracked success hype they are at times dressed up to appear like. On the contrary, evidence shows that failure is part of the journey to success. In fact, high achieving people almost always stumble several times and quite often suffer to reach their level of success.

That’s what we see when we study scientific evidence or biographies of great achievers in politics, business, art, sports, and life. Failures, defeats, and pain almost always precede success just like Monday always come before Saturday.

According to a fresh and deep digging 10-year study published in the Harvard Business Review, track records of failures are the trademark of top performing leaders, not the exception:

“Virtually all CEO candidates had made material mistakes in the past, and 45% of them had had at least one major career blowup that ended a job or was extremely costly to the business” (Botelho et al. 2017)

Leaders are risk takers and they should be. Since organizations and environments are partially unpredictable, taking calculated risks is expected and unavoidable. However, risk by definition means the probability of failure. So if you hire a person with an unstained track record, you could end up with a person unable to lead or innovate.

After all, if you have few or no misses, perhaps you have fired too few shots or none at all.

We should not be surprised by this. History and extraordinary achievers have already told us:

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly”

Robert F. Kennedy

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts”

 Winston S. Churchill

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success”

J.K. Rowling

Success seems to be a lot about the courage to take risks, humble hard work, and lots of learning along the way. Including stumbling and falling, big or small, painful or just embarrassing.

In some industries avoidance of failure is the very core of their business, because of the high-risk nature of what they are doing. Of course, in industries where people die or get seriously hurt if a failure occurs, other approaches and attitudes to failure are necessary.

Examples are airlines and within some sectors of the military, health care, oil, and chemical industry. Ironically these industries seem to be among the very best at learning from mistakes. Their very few mistakes are deeply analyzed and they typically have well-developed systems for reporting, analyzing, and learning from “almost mistakes” and weaknesses.

Openness about Failure Builds Learning and Trust.

A few years ago, when teaching a leadership course, I asked participants to work in groups and discuss their most valuable learning experiences. Then I asked each group to choose one person to get up in front of us and share her or his greatest learning moment. In times of obsession with positive reinforcement and an almost exclusive ignorance of negative reinforcement, I expected to hear a bunch of hype success stories.

But I was wrong. Practically all of them shared a story of a big failure and what they learned from it. Obviously, these experiences left strong footprints in their minds and were quite emotional for some. Effectively, as they made no attempts at hiding these mistakes, their failures were valuable lessons from which major learning points were salvaged.

That’s the approach of true performers. While a hide-and-seek attitude to failures might be tempting to save face, it’s short sighted and seldom works in the long run.

Perfection Creates Suspicion

Years ago, a former colleague of mine started his new job by claiming at the lunch table, on his very first day: “Would you believe it, in my 20-year career, I have actually never had a failure?” Nobody reacted. Not a word around the table, just a long silence. I guess most of us were thinking “Well buddy, you just did…..”.

Employees and coworkers are experienced human beings bearing their own defeats, failures, disappointments, and scars. They get suspicious when people appear too perfect and too smooth. They do not ask: “show me an A-student, a perfect person with an unbroken record of successes and I will follow”.

They are too wise for that. Any attempt to claim an unstained track record will foster suspicion rather than trust. Honesty about one’s own weaknesses and failures creates trust and identification. Therefore, people will usually respect others that have the integrity and confidence to be open about their failures and fears.

I am not suggesting that we should replace a “go do it right” ideal with “go do it wrong”. I am merely proposing that since we’re all human we will make mistakes. No matter how hard we try and how good we are at what we are doing. The best achievers seem to tap into the learning potential of any given situation, good or bad, and be open about it.

If we dare to view success and failure, not as contradictions, but as accompanying partners on a journey, this will open doors of opportunity to benefit from the important learning experiences of both failure and success. Jim Collins, for instance, has illustrated in his comprehensive research (“Built to Last”), how very successful companies are likely to master this balance.

Trial and Error are in our Genes

No matter what profession, organization, or corporate level, we’re all in the business of human behavior. Humans are the motor behind any return on investment or creation of welfare, and as previously mentioned, human beings fail.

Trial and error are in our genes from our very birth, developed through millennia, long before schooling was even thought of. Trial and error is simply the first way of learning we stumble upon and the one that comes most naturally to us.

An average child tries and fails 10,000 times before learning to walk. What persistence, what courage. 10,000 times!! One-year-old children are not afraid to fall, even though they get hurt now and then. How come then, most of us somewhere along the way become afraid of failure and later in life have to struggle to regain the go-try-it mentality that was once given to us by nature? Perhaps that’s a question for society, education, organizations, and leaders to consider very carefully.

A Real-Life Anecdote about how Failure Teaches Success

A totally screwed up sales presentation I made many years ago taught me my most valuable lesson about sales ever. Moreover, the way my leader handled it was a case of strong leadership that I often think of with a smile and gratefulness, even after all these years.

As a young junior in a managing consultancy company, my boss created an opening to make a sales presentation of a market research project for the board of a chain of office suppliers. He would be there as an observer only.

I worked my pants off and arrived armed to the teeth with slides, facts and bright answers to any questions of methods or statistic that anybody might ask. Nonetheless, I bored 12 business leaders to death with all of my knowledge of sampling, questionnaires, and levels of significance.

Within 10 minutes some of them seemed to be sleeping with their eyes open. It became perhaps the longest 30 minutes of my professional life. My boss was there, but he did not say a word during what felt like a disastrous presentation.

On our three hour drive home, he asked me in a calm and kind manner, “What do you think about today?”

I told him that I felt like I had screwed up. That I had put half of the board to sleep and that I did not know what I did wrong or how to correct it.

“I’m glad you say that because I think you’re right, ” he said. Then he told me very briefly and kindly why nobody cares about the “how” unless you sell them the “why”. That was it. Not a harsh word, no blame, nothing. Two weeks later he asked me whether I wanted to attain sales training, and I was perfectly aware that it would be quite wise to say yes.

Why do I think that this was strong leadership? Because he ensured three important things:

  1. He recognized that I had worked hard and did my very best.
  2. He assured that I knew and accepted that I had failed.
  3. He assured that I was willing to learn and gave me the opportunity to do so.

A perhaps even more important sign of strong leadership: he built confidence and courage by showing me the soul of our company culture: “If you do your best, take responsibility, and is prepared to learn – then when you fail – nobody around here will blame you for failing”.

What’s your Attitude to Failure and does it Prepare for the Future?

How do you handle the failures of your employees or colleagues? Does your attitude support the goals you want to achieve and the culture you want to breed?

What’s your attitude towards failures when you hire? Does that attitude leave you with the skills and personality types you need?

It might cause the reflection to not always look for the A-student smooth talker with unbroken records of all the ‘right’ experiences, achievements and education when hiring. Or with Tom Peter’s words:

“Never hire Mr. or Mrs. Right!! His resumé is impeccable. He strides into his interview brimming with confidence. He reels off all the right answers. He fits perfectly. But wait – this is a highly imperfect world. People who live by the book die by the book. Look instead for Mr. or Mrs. Slightly-off-the-Wall. Someone who can respond to and thrive amid chaos, who can mutate to meet the demands of the hour (or minute)” (1994).

Interesting research by Argyris (1991) describes how too much success can be a serious obstacle, preventing otherwise high achieving professionals from learning from failure – when they need it the most:

When do we have the Strongest need for Learning?

According to Chris Argyris, the demand for learning is strongest in situations that call for not merely an improvement of our existing approach, but rather a completely different approach. He calls this double-loop learning.

People with successful track records are shown to be highly skilled at single-loop learning, yet often fall short of mastering double-loop learning.

“Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.

So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the “blame” on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.”

Many things are changing around us at a breathtaking pace (see Mintzberg). Yet, other things seem quite unchanged. Like the qualities of courage to accept a risk and the resilience to learn from failures instead of letting them break us down.

Undoubtedly we will need these qualities even more in a future that continues to bring more complexity and a faster pace of change in society and business (see previous article: 8 complexity management strategies that will help you cope).

Although rising complexity and the pace of change create additional opportunities for innovation, with these opportunities comes the risk of failure. Undoubtedly, when the target gets hard to see through the clutter, you will have more misses.

Furthermore, when you’re aiming at a fast moving target, you are sure to increase your amount of misses. Rising complexity and societies of innovation all call for the courage to accept risks and the resilience to grow from failures.

References:

Academy of Management (2017) “Managers learn better from others’ failures than they do from their successes

Argyris, Chris (1991). Teaching smart people how to learn, Harvard Business Review, May-June.

Botelho, Elena Lytkina; Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, Stephen Kincaid, Dina Wang (2017). What Sets Successful CEOs Apart? Harvard Business Review, May-June.

The CEO Genome Project (2017).

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek (2008). The Value of Failure. Harvard Business Review, October

Collins, Jim (2005). “Built to Last – Successful habits of visionary companies”. Random House Business Books.

Forbes 2013. 30 powerful quotes on failure.

Peters, Tom (1994). The Pursuit of Wow. Macmillan.

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Kim Buch-Madsen has comprehensive experience in the fields of innovation, change management, and business strategy. He is the author and co-author of several books including the brand new “Marketing Models” (for now, only in Danish) and the upcoming book: “Innovation from idea to market” (in Danish). He holds a bachelor degree in business analysis and a Master of Science degree in strategy, management, and marketing.

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