June 25, 2012

Topic: Management & Leadership

Fail forward

I recently heard about a book written by John Maxwell called Failing Forward. I haven’t yet read the book, but when I heard the title, it immediately grabbed my attention. My mind started racing with several concepts of how I thought about “failing forward.” It was particularly timely as I had just had a project fail to work out, but was able to see it as a learning experience.

I and many of our people spent a lot of time on this endeavor. I thought it was going to be a big success for everyone involved. On the call, when I learned this project wasn’t going to happen, I immediately became upset, but really, only momentarily. As the conversation went on and I realized it was definitely not going to happen, my disappointment subsided as I thought about how much we had learned organizationally. We grew from this failed attempt and were much more prepared to pursue new, similar projects in the future.

If you have ever been involved in sports, or probably any competition, you realize how much more you learn from losing than winning. When you play against an inferior opponent, you can be sloppy and still win. However, when you compete against a superior opponent, your weaknesses are exposed. That’s when you learn you need to get better at hitting a curveball, your team needs to communicate better, your defense needs tightening, or as I realized this last weekend when someone blew past me on a hill, I better work more on my climbing.

The same holds true in life and in business. When you fall short and make a mistake, it teaches you what you need to work on. The key, though, is how you approach it.

Ironically, after making a mistake, people tend to immediately make a second mistake. They get hung up on the first mistake, letting their minds replay the scenario over and over. This triggers negative emotions, and can result in some sleepless nights. I admit, it’s hard to let go and move on, but it’s a healthy and necessary first step in order to learn from your mistakes.

The other problem people almost naturally have is the knee-jerk reaction to place blame. It may be subconscious self-protection, but your mind wants to place the blame on someone else. There are two issues here. Obviously, first of all, it may not really be anyone’s “fault.” Second, if you don’t dig for the true cause of the mistake, you miss out on the opportunity to correct things and avoid repeat errors. I think it’s important to reframe the situation from looking to place blame to one where you look to learn and improve.

To avoid future errors, make sure the failure isn’t a systemic problem that could become much bigger. Examine how the outcome came about and look at similar activities for process problems, like inaccurate data input and incorrect system-generated calculations. You need to look to be sure that there aren’t similar mistakes moving through the belly of the snake, which would mean you have a systemic problem that is going to grow.

If not systemic, you probably have an error that a person made. This is actually a best-case scenario because it’s isolated and can typically be resolved through training. Additionally, if this is the case, it’s a great opportunity to refresh and retrain others with similar responsibilities. And finally, if it’s not an issue specific to an individual but something that just slipped through the cracks, you need to examine your processes and procedures and make sure you put systems in place to catch similar types of failures in the future.

When failure happens, move on, don’t blame, and reframe. Consider it an opportunity for improvement, and endeavor to fail forward.
 

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