Learning from Failure

In a recent interview with the former P & G CEO A. G. Lafley in the Harvard Business Review he related that the “most important and insightful learning is far more likely to come from failures than from success.”  He added, “the learning needs to be institutionalized to endure, otherwise you keep making the same mistake over and over and you don’t learn from them.”

Learning from failure is a luxury that many CEOs don’t always have but if you ask the most successful leaders, they will tell you that nobody is perfect and we never achieve 1,000% accuracy – matter of fact many can win the Most Valuable Player award in baseball for batting 333 most years. 

As a reformed perfectionist my goal is still to reach for the sky but being a modern-day realist it is also important to realize that everyday is different and that judgements need to be made constantly.  If you can go to sleep at night with the philosophy that you gave your best, I can’t imagine any individual is going to fault you for your effort.

Lafley believes that all mistakes are learning experiences and are survivable, “I tried with any major decision to think not only about the strategy, economics and financials, but also about who was going to be influential in the decision and how I could manage that influence so I will not be caught off guard again.”

If you are going to be honest with yourself, you will always find learnings from failure.  Most leaders advocate taking risks – manageable risks.  Without risk an organization becomes stagnant and looses its edge and creativity.  Of course the caveat is reasonable and manageable risk.  There are some risks that can not only end your career but throw the organization “off the cliff” along side you.

My creed has always been to manage the company’s money as if it were my very own.  If you are prepared to personally take a substantial loss if this project is a failure – then proceed.  If you aren’t willing to accept the “arrows” then you may want to think twice about such a project.  Act like an entrepreneur and success is on the horizon for you and the company.

Most entrepreneurs and successful leaders will tell you, after a drink or two that success is certainly a natural (if not organic) by-product of failure.  American engineer Charles F. Kettering, the American creator of the electric starter is famous for the statement “an inventor fails 999 times, and if he succeeds once, he’s in.  He treats his failures simply as practice shots.”

What is most important from failure is what we have learned from that experience.  If you have lived – you have failed, and you must accept and acknowledge your mistakes and move on.  It is that learning that is the most important end result.  What’s the old phrase – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the true definition of insanity!

The former P & G CEO admits that “it’s not enough to take responsibility for your failures.  It’s important to create a culture of continual improvement.  If the leader of the company doesn’t do that, it’s very difficult to create a culture of courage and openness for change and continued improvement.  Unless you learn from failure, you won’t get better – and the company won’t get better.”

Unfortunately we live in an era of gottcha journalism and gotcha mangement.  We must all be extremely careful because any slip can gain us prominence – prominence that we certainly aren’t looking for.  With corporations, and to a lesser degree associations anticipating postitive financials on not just an annual basis but on a monthly if not daily basis it behooves management to walk tenuously.

The end result of being adverse to taking risks because of someone always looking over your shoulder is that no one is planning beyond the present.  No one is planning for the future and everyone is postponing decisions so that such efforts will not be promulgated on their watch or tenure.  This picture is not a successful paradigm for any entity’s long-term future.

Fear of failure is a natural instinct and one all leaders should never forget but if the proverbial teetering anvil is placed over your head at all times or if you need approval for every action taken, the engine gets stuck in the mud and little is achieved for the betterment of the stakeholders.

I don’t believe any manager is asking for less oversight or the elimination of the swot (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis but it is important to know that manageable risk taking is an accepted company approach and that one should be rewarded for risk taking rather than being penalized.  Results are always paramount but let’s not forget the process and analysis in our frenzy to post the press release. 

Colin Powell is famous for his victories and his failures and he is instructive on the topic “there are no secrets to success, it is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.”  A lesson we all should take to heart as managers.


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