Learning From Failure

Nobody likes the ‘F’ word, failure. And the other ‘F’ comes out after you really fail. Especially in Asian culture, failure means bad and in some cultures if you fail you don’t deserve the right to live because you bring shame to the family or the business that’s associated with you. The Western culture tolerates it better when it comes to failure.


My thoughts about failing are a mixed of both. I have failed many times (made more successes along the way of course!) and I still remember the 1st time I failed my parents, it felt really bad that I almost lost myself. Gladly, I am still around for another few failures but I have learned to tolerate it better. I stumbled an article (Strategies For Learning From Failure – Amy C. Edmondson) that talk about how to learn from failure and reasons from failure. Let me share some of the key points.


I am going to describe four common reasons of failure and perhaps, how we can build some learning culture from it so we minimize future failures. First reason is Deviance; it means an individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice. This happens to many of us especially when we are too dead-sure about our own decision. There is a saying that sometimes it’s good to ask around for feedback before making big decision. Even though Steve Jobs advocate not to trust focus groups too much, but hey it’s always good to ask second opinion right?


Second reason is Lack of Ability. For example when someone is considering a new role/job, where sometimes some people are just not fit for certain job. This is where an individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions or training to execute the job. In Malaysia the trend is to recruit the people from the same industry and same background. Take for example banking industry, banks will only take people with banking background then grow them to become business managers or leaders. This is to minimize technical skills gap that is core to banking business. The flipside is it caused an acute talent shortage in banking these days. I would recommend banks to start investing in talents from other background and train them the core skills to provide that ability. Assess the talents from there onwards.

“My life has been nothing but a failure, and all that’s left for me to do is to destroy my paintings before I disappear.” – Claude Monet, Painter.
“My life has been nothing but a failure, and all that’s left for me to do is to destroy my paintings before I disappear.” – Claude Monet, Painter.

Third reason is Uncertainty; a lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesired results. This is also common especially with yo-yo business environment these days. This also applies to both corporate man and entrepreneurs. On the other hand, there is no such thing of 20/20 accuracy. One has always willing to take calculated risks. Like a saying, nothing ventured nothing gained.


Fourth reason is Exploratory Testing; an experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired result. This reason can be good to fail because there is a lot of learning can be gained. As saying goes, sometimes what you need is the kick in the teeth by Walt Disney.


Failures are not created equal. What first look like a failure at the beginning can transform to a big success later on. Take AirAsia for example when Tan Sri Tony Fernandes took over. It was a loss making venture before AirAsia. But now AirAsia a household name in many countries. I think it is the most profitable low cost airline right now. 😉 Well done! Their Europe routes decision was a failure but they are fast redirecting to Asean market.


But the question now is how we can build a learning culture out of failures? The word failure itself is a taboo but failing to learn from our failures equally not a smart move. Management team from all areas must learn to accept failures and build a culture where our own people are able to get up and learn from it. Most of the times we play the blame game and make people suffer when they take up the blame. Numerous times the ‘who did it’ comes a top priority instead of ‘what actually happened’. This closed learning culture is eminent across the board regardless of company size. We must always see failures an opportunity to learn something new e.g. an experiment.


Next we should build systematic process to detect failures early. Of course you can only learn detecting bit after a few failures. Yes, while we churn out endless reports but we sometimes forget to pick up the analysis and announce it to our team or the entire organization. Most of the times only the know-who and top management get to know lessons learned. But have you heard about stuck-in-the-middle norms where information flows stop at the middle managers level? We can’t afford this when communicating learning from failures. True leaders must fight this idiosyncrasies and outdated thinking to force the communication to be widespread.


Here are some of the questions that can be used to minimize/avoid failures:


  1. Is the pilot being tested under typical/actual circumstances (rather than optimal condition)?
  2. Do the employees, customers and resources are represented in the company’s real operating environment?
  3. Is the goal of the pilot to learn as much as possible (or rather to demonstrate the value of the offering or commercial purpose)?
  4. Is the goal of learning well understood by all employees and managers?
  5. Is it clear that compensation and performance reviews are not based on successful outcome of the pilot?
  6. Were explicit changes made as a result of the pilot test?
"People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it's simply necessary to love." - Claude Monet, Painter
“People discuss my art and pretend to understand as if it were necessary to understand, when it’s simply necessary to love.” – Claude Monet, Painter


You may find these questions useful in both new product development or business ventures. Sometimes what you need is to let someone run through with you these questions to avoid self-fulfilling biasness that you may possess doing it yourself. Management team must allow themselves to be questioned and challenged to ensure all angles are covered. The courage to confront our own and others imperfections is crucial to solving the apparent contradiction of wanting neither to discourage the reporting of the problems nor to create an environment in which anything goes.


Trust is key and during this open process trust can be developed to higher level. While finding someone or a team that you trust can be a constant challenge, one must not lose trust in oneself. Sometimes all you need is a failure to learn but never fail to learn. Just bite the bullet and go for it.

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