Knowing how to deal with failure is important

What is failure?

Why is failure important?

What are the options for managing failure?

How can we address failure in an organizational context?

Failure is often considered a taboo or an outcome to be avoided at all costs. I would like to give you some insight into failure by presenting some best practices from the corporate world.

Failure is often devalued, mismanaged, experienced as an emergency, or avoided

Dictionaries define failure as a negative outcome, a mistake, an error, a sin, a shortcoming. From other definitions, cultural aspects related to the theme emerge: “total” failure, ruin, disaster, unacceptable conclusion, thing or person that is cause for disappointment, recognition of the uselessness of one’s efforts. It is presented as a “monster” to avoid.

Our absorbing this meaning, this cultural interpretation of failure,  has an impact in terms of attitude and behavior.

The consequences could be that we: avoid it, deny it, hide it, take the wrong path because we are overly risk-averse, following the urge to be perfect at some imperfect plan according to crystallized formats. The risk is the inhibition of innovation, stifling of experimentation and missed opportunities for enlargement of fields of action. Our attitude toward failure can trigger passivity and freeze a decision-maker, blocking activity and desire.

Do not underestimate the power of failure; it is fundamental for growth and development

We live in a society characterized by continuous and rapid changes, which require a constant effort to keep up-to-date, stay informed, tune in, and, importantly, to cope when we do not. The pace of change and the impossibility of staying completely current make the ability to manage failure very important.

In human development, failure is important in the formation of identity and in the regulation of emotions. It allows survival. It is a theme often and willingly denied and avoided in many contexts, closely analogous with the concept of death.

From childhood, the functionality of negative experiences is linked to the regulation of personal behavior. Processing negative feedback and reworking our approach, developing the ability to tolerate frustrations and maintain the drive to retry are fundamental skills for success.

Failure is essential for defining one’s self-esteem

Failure is necessary to define one’s self-esteem. Avoiding potential failures is not compatible with aiming to widen the boundaries of one’s value.

External elements may be instrumental in a failure. Attributing complete responsibility for the outcome of one’s actions could, therefore, be an unrealistic and destructive distortion of one’s own self-perceived value.

There are several approaches to failure

There are those who avoid failure, those who tend to be perfect, those who deny failure when it happens despite the evidence, those who do not consider it, those who follow rules and standards to the letter, those who experience it continuously, and, finally, those who use it and consider it resource.

There are also those who, in order to preserve their self-esteem, come to adopt self-harming strategies, sabotaging their performance in order to obtain a justification with respect to a possible experience of failure.

This is the case of the French chess player Deschapelles, who at the turn of the 1700s and 1800s played with his opponents giving them an advantage, allowing them an extra pawn and the benefit of the first move. This allowed him to justify any defeats and collect larger rewards if he won. In both cases, this strategy would have kept the self-esteem intact.

Some companies give us valuable insights

The issue of failure is sometimes addressed in a business context. Salim Ismail talks about this in Exponential Organizations, presenting us with four approaches to the topic:

  1. Failure is not contemplated and compromises career opportunities. This happens in NASA and is well represented by the motto “failure is not an option”.
  2. Failure and risk are only formally encouraged, without any monitoring and quantification, with a laissez-faire approach.
  3. Failure and risk-taking are allowed and monitored, but strictly limited or confined. This happens in Lockheed Skunk Works.
  4. Failure and risk-taking are present, measured and exalted throughout the organization. This happens in Amazon, Google, Tata, and P&G.

Some organizations have particularly virtuous approaches, from which we can draw inspiration:

  • With the “heroic failure award”, P&G awards the employee who achieved the greatest failure that generated the greatest intuition. It recognizes the generative and innovative power of failure, legitimizing the error for its usefulness in obtaining new ideas
  • Tata’s “give it a try” program recognizes managers who have taken the greatest risk. It does not encourage and celebrate every mistake or failure, but in cases where there was a commercial, ethical and legal strategy developed afterward by the team that resulted in practices that can help the company avoid making old mistakes, failure can be celebrated for having offered a lesson.
  • Apple launches hardware only when it is perfect. We can imagine that in some contexts, failure is unacceptable, like, for instance, in nuclear reactor operations, or hardware releases.  And we can only agree that different approaches to failure are appropriate in different situations, based on the context and the risk.
  • Intermountain Healthcare, a complex of 23 hospitals in Utah has activated a system of analysis of deviations from protocols and sources of potential dangers that shares data collected by health personnel. The objective is to foresee and minimize further errors and learn if observed deviations can be a source of improvement in care techniques. From errors, we learn what to avoid or what to change, with a spirit of sharing.
  • Enel implements some actions to recognize the value of errors and to celebrate the courage of the people who report failure transparently. Enel even offers a “best failure award”. The objective is to raise awareness about the culture of failure as an opportunity for growth and opportunities for innovation and experimentation. Those who make a mistake are rewarded for having the courage to take risks and talk about it, even if they fail.
  • Google sometimes adopts Gary Klein’s “premortem” technique at the design stage. It is a preliminary exercise to discuss all the possible ways in which a project could fail in order to enhance it. Google also values the “postmortem” failure analysis, evaluating a project after it is implemented. Potential failures are considered a source of data from which the entire organization can learn and grow.

Many of these companies show us that “you learn by making mistakes”.

Which model do you recognize yourself in?

How do you relate to failure? Do you avoid it, encourage it without analyzing it, admit it and monitor it, persevere without analyzing it and changing behavior, or do you recognize it and even exalt it when you can use it to drive improvement?

Coco Chanel claimed that “strength is built on one’s failures, not on one’s successes.” And the suggestion I wish to give you with this article is to allow yourself to be imperfect, and to stumble, even in those contexts where there is a risk of getting really hurt. It could provide you with valuable and useful material, revealing benefits and insights that you had not yet considered.