Congratulations! You're a Failure! (And Why That's Good)

Author: Bryan Ritchie

Blog35 Notre Dame

Most of us have never heard our parents say “I’m so proud of the failure you’ve become.” This is because hopefully our parents have our best interests at heart and want us to become something great. But here’s the irony: you probably will never be anything, let alone something great, if you haven’t learned how to fail correctly. Failure is the experience that can complete us as human beings. The question is not whether we’ll fail. Everyone fails. The question is whether we’ll fail “forward” productively.

Most of us have heard that if we’re going to fail, at least we’ll learn something from it. But that’s not always true. Many of us fail, often everyday, over and over again, and never learn anything. Hence the reason we keep failing in the same way. On the other hand, if we can make failing more purposeful from a learning standpoint, that is, if we can figure out why we failed and apply new thinking and new activities to correcting that failure, then failure might be the springboard to success, and not just a little success, but wild success.

This idea of failing in order to learn is what we mean by failing forward. We often tell stories of famous people who now are tremendously successful, but have had moments of failure, sometimes catastrophic. But the failure is not the venture that did not succeed, it is not learning from that effort to know how to try again better the next time.

Effective learning from failure is extraordinarily difficult and rare. Amy Edmonson in the Harvard Business Review says the following: “These widely held beliefs [about how to learn from failure] are misguided. First, failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most organizations, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated. Organizations need new and better ways to go beyond lessons that are superficial (“Procedures weren’t followed”) or self-serving (“The market just wasn’t ready for our great new product”). That means jettisoning old cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success and embracing failure’s lessons.”[i]

She goes on to note three main categories of failures: Those that happen in the course of operations that are preventable with the right oversight and care; Those that inevitably happen because of the complexity of systems; and those that happen because people are intelligently working at the frontier of their capacity. So what can be learned from each of these types of failure? For those failures that could have been avoided, it is important to know why process failed and what led people to go outside that process. These can typically be fixed with better oversight and accountability. For failures due to systems complexity, the problem is that we often have never encountered such combinations before. The right response is to recognize the newness of the problem and apply efforts to address the issues early, constantly testing new hypotheses or fixes to the problem until new best practices are discovered. For failures due to working on the frontier of knowledge, “trial and error” will be necessary for progress. The key is to spend the time to create the culture and space for this experimentation. In many ways, this challenge is driven by needs for a new solutions which are simply not known. Wide latitude for trial and celebration both of failures AND successes will drive the right outcomes.

This leads to culture change. I love how Amy Edmonson suggests that while fast failure can be good in many instances (for example IDEO’s slogan of Fail often so you can succeed sooner), it is not always appropriate (she suggests you consider a manufacturing floor). Instead, perhaps it is to detect failure quicker and get it fixed. The fewer resources one spends before identifying the failure, the better off any organization will be. And that is certainly something to celebrate!

Finally, as a parting thought, I’ve addressed failure from the perspective of organizational progress. But what about individual progress? I am convinced that failure is the force that can complete and finish us as human beings. If we only have success, or fail to internalize (or experience) our failures, then we are condemned to be half a person. The qualities of pride, dominance, superiority, and indifference are likely outcomes of only experiencing success.[ii] Internalized failure leads to humility, empathy, team-work, patience, innovation, and purpose. Perhaps leaders (and parents), if they want growth, should be less concerned with achieving perpetual success and more focused on promoting correct failure.

[i] Amy Edmonson. April 2011. “Strategies for Learning from Failure.” Harvard Business Review.

[ii] Notice that “experiencing” has nothing to do with “occurrence”. That is, we can fail but not experience it.