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Failure: Stepping Stone to Success

(posted: January 19th, 2016)

We are taught that the f-word is shameful, and that we should avoid its use.

No, not that f-word, this one:

  • Failure.

But failure is how we reach success.

Warning! Failure is Imminent!

A quick glance at the clock on the wall made my heart stop. It was almost the end of the first day of the big board retreat I was facilitating. The board, 50 CEOs from competing organizations, was nowhere near reaching their goals for the day.

The executives couldn't seem to work together to decide strategy and set the policies for the coming year, in spite of the fact that the goals were beneficial for the industry as a whole.

We were behind schedule, the busy execs only had one more day, and it was starting to look like the whole thing was going to implode.

It was starting to look like a failure--My failure.

I had successfully facilitated many board meetings before this one, effectively soothing ruffled feathers and calming outsized egos to get important strategic work done, so why was this one going south?

After we broke for the evening, tired and worried, I sat down to evaluate the day. How was I going to save this?

The Lessons in Failure

Failure and defeat can be some of our best teachers, but leaders are often afraid to let their people fail. In corporate culture it is considered better to play it safe and make the same choices again and again, because failure brings recriminations, and shame.

But, as the saying goes,

"Success is never final and failure never fatal. It's courage that counts."

Leaders need to be able to deliver risky, edgy, breakthrough ideas, plans, presentations, advice, technology, products, leadership, and more, without any fear of failure.

People tend to view failure and success as mutually exclusive. It's you in the middle with failure on one side and success on the other. With this model, you have to turn away from failure to move towards success. But if you look at it as a continuum or a progression, failure then becomes part of the process. Success is the destination and failure is a stepping stone along the path.

When leaders have the courage to embrace failure as a key element of success, for themselves and their teams, amazing things can happen.

Perhaps the most important thing leaders can do is to make failure acceptable by changing the culture of their organization. Make it clear that failures and mistakes are not going to incur blame (other than intentional negligence). Foster an environment where failures are willingly surfaced because they will be honestly evaluated to determine what can be changed or done better the next time.

Flexible Failure

In my situation with the executive board, I was alert to what was happening in the meeting and aware that the board was not progressing as expected, so I was able to identify the problem, analyze what was going wrong and experiment with a different format.

I "failed fast" by catching it quickly and applying a creative solution.

Organizations can learn from failure by applying these three key actions:

  • Detection - Encourage people to talk about it, bring it to the attention of the team, etc.
    In this case, I was paying close attention, so I caught that there was a problem.
  • Analysis - Look at the process to determine what went wrong.
    I went back over the course of the day carefully and found the specific issue that seemed to be the root cause.
  • Experimentation - Try different solutions or apply different methods to find one that does work.
    My solution for the board was to be flexible with the process I had created, change the plan to eliminate the elements that weren't working, and try a new approach the next day.

Ask: What happened?
Not: Who did it?

Saving the Day, and the Board

With my quick solution in place, the last day of the big retreat went off without a hitch, participation was high, and the board members accomplished their objectives, and more. In fact, they asked me to return. What could have been a failure was transformed into a success.

Failing again and again can be valuable, as long as what is learned brings you closer to your goals.

So...I hope I've convinced you to use the f-word more often!

Related Posts:

Challenge Yourself
  • How do you use failure to succeed?
  • Can you share some examples of how your teams have learned from their mistakes?
  • What has happened when you've been open about a mistake or failure?

Images licensed from 123RF


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