What Can You Learn From Failure?
Failure…it’s a big, ugly word, isn’t it? Most of us think of failure as something bad, something we did wrong. Of course, if that is how we define failure then it’s no wonder that failure is perceived as a dirty word. I want you to consider for a moment that any time we try new things the possibility exists that it will not work out perfectly, or even as we planned. That, however, does not mean we failed. It simply means there is something for us to learn.
All of us screw up, make mistakes, and end up with results we didn’t want or expect. It doesn’t mater if you are a great leader, a world-class sales person, an entrepreneur or anyone else. Things don’t always turn out as we planned. Sometimes things happen that are completely out of our control and sometimes the results are different than we planned. And, of course, there is the possibility that we believe we have more control than we actually do. The challenge with what we refer to as failure is not the result, it’s how we feel about the result. It’s the stories we tell ourselves about the outcome that are the problem. What if you could step away from self-blame and emotional whipping to determine what you can learn.
Before we begin to talk about what you can learn from failure, I need to make a comment. One of the problems with identifying outcomes as failures is that others are then defined as successes. It becomes either/or thinking. Either what we did was right (success) or wrong (failure). In fact, neither may be true. For example, in sales you can do everything ‘right’ and lose the sale or at times get lucky and are in the right place at the right time and it wasn’t anything you did that caused the sale to happen. The same is true with product launches, new service offerings, new projects, and just about everything else we can think of. Doing everything right doesn’t guarantee success. Nor does an outcome different than what you expected mean you or the project was a failure.
Now, what can we learn when the outcome is different than the result we expected?
- Assess your ego. Our ego gets in our way more often than we recognize and may be willing to admit. How does this show up? Maybe you didn’t listen to others before launching into a decision. Perhaps you knew the risks and either minimized them in your own mind or assumed you’d handle whatever problems occurred. Or, in the past, things worked out so well you stopped doing exactly what made you successful in the past because you assumed you no longer needed to. And some of us think we are Golden or Teflon, and neither is true.
- Evaluate the plan. Entrepreneurs tend to be risk takers. They have a vision, an idea, and they push the go button. In fact, they are often in go-mode without having a plan or giving much thought to it at all, other than how well it will work. In larger organizations they often pick apart a plan until there is nothing left, start all over, and then one day simply decide to jump. The question to ask yourself is was there a plan. If so, how well thought out was the plan, and did it take into account resources, time, and even what if? There likely is some lesson here.
- Decision by committee. Committees can’t make decisions. They create circular discussions and then eventually, somehow, a decision is made. And, because no one is responsible (the committee did it), no one is accountable and the end results is, well, let’s say, usually a mess.
- Did you fail to make a decision? At times we think we have made a decision, but we actually haven’t. For example, a meeting takes place (or two or three meetings) and lots and lots of conversation ensues. Weeks later there is still more conversation and suddenly someone asks about the status. Well, the status is there is no status, which might be interpreted as a failure. Conversations do not mean decisions are made.
- Did you try to minimize your risk? No leader, executive, or employee ever wants to make a bad decision, and because of this we often try to minimize our risk. We don’t hire the super star because we are afraid we won’t keep them long term. We don’t have the difficult conversation for fear we will lose a key employee. We dilly-dally around with a contract trying to ensure all the terms and conditions work for us. There are hundreds of examples. In the desire to minimize risk, we try to create safety for ourselves. That safety we are trying to create can backfire in so many ways.
- Was there something you couldn’t predict? The marketing taking a crash in 2008 is an example and the rippling impact it had on companies and people is well documented. Acts of nature, economy, illness…all kinds of situations can have a bearing on the outcome. The question to ask yourself is ‘could you have predicted or known’ and if the answer is no, quit beating yourself up.
- How to toughen up. If all we ever know is success (good things happen), we are ill prepared for when things don’t go our way or as planned. Learning that life isn’t a bowl of cherries all the time, and how to take the hits with the wins, gives us personal fortitude.
Actions may not produce the results you want, and that doesn’t translate to you personally are a failure. Nor does it translate to you, as a person, made a bad decision. Yes, you might have made a bad decision, but it might mean something interfered with the action working as well as planned.
Great leaders and executives understand that failure is not irreversible, nor does it mean they need to dig a hole, crawl into it, and cover themselves up. What we can learn from failure is as important to our own personal growth and development as success is. All individuals, companies, and people within companies crash sometimes. It’s not the crash that keeps you down, it’s how you respond to the crash and evaluate yourself as a result that keeps you down.
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