To err is human, to forgive is not always organisational policy!

Here, David Cliff, managing director of Gedanken, explains why businesses should embrace and learn from failure.

One of the most rewarding parts of coaching and mentoring practice is that people seek to evaluate when things go wrong in a safe environment where this can be explored openly, without threat or embarrassment.

It was fascinating recently to watch the curator of the Swedish ‘Museum of Failure’ in Helsingborg describe difficulty getting exhibits and support from big-name brands, evidencing fortunes lost and lessons learned in the corporate world. The $300 luxury McDonald’s burger, the Roland mixing desk that was just too complex to use, the Donald Trump board game and many more featured amongst corporate names large and small who attempted to extend their products and/or services and fell foul in the process.

We don’t like to admit to failure, but we all do it. They say to err is human and yet in the business world, we are loath to face up to things that have gone wrong, lest we taint our brand or somehow affect confidence in the market. Ironically, this contrasts with how many customers express satisfaction and increased brand loyalty when a problem has been well handled by a company.

No one wants to admit to weakness or vulnerability of any sort, with every action defended as right and justified. The company spokesperson will try and talk their way out of a situation with more verbal gymnastics than a solicitor defending a guilty client in court. The rule of the game is that failure in any guise must be avoided at all costs.

The problem is, so many people live inside “business stories” of success and egos are shown up by myths and legends of things never having been better. We are spurred on by a cry of “onwards and upwards” and a whole load of other rhetorical nonsense that you hear bandied around boardrooms, business networks, and those ritual drinks events.

So just what does failure truly mean in business, and is it an important part professional practice?

It means in a changing world, organisations require dynamic leaders who can learn, evaluate, and offer behavioural flexibility. Failure is an inescapable and indeed desirable element of these processes. If we only get a sense of what works, we never are able to understand what does not work. We know that circumstances where we fail to get goals require reasons and reflection upon what occurred to make sense of what happened.

Frequently, the cause of an undesired event takes place outside of one’s own sphere of influence and agency. It is important to understand where that occurred and how, or even if, that can be avoided in future. Equally, if the cause was human error, particularly our own, our leadership development and authenticity as a person requires that we park our ego on the double yellow lines of the business world whilst we evaluate our part in the process and assess what we can do to improve.

Failure has two stablemates: denial or improvement. The current rhetoric of the business community focuses more on denial, and even those who are capable of seeking continuous improvement hide their learning like a guilty secret from the rest of the business community, preventing it becoming more of an environment for learning.

For example, it may be that this article itself goes down like a lead balloon with readers. People may not want to circulate it or retweet it because they don’t wish to be associated in any way with failure. Yet the feedback I get from this article will inform me of the current issues that business want to hear about from thought leaders, coaches and others in my particular sphere of the business world. Equally, it will give me feedback on what people do not want, and that’s valuable too.

Failure is like physical pain. Whilst pain is undesirable, it does motivate action. If you have a toothache, you ask the dentist to do something about it and things improve. If you ignore it, things will probably deteriorate. It’s just the same with failure. Failure is a signal that greater excellence is required. This might be planning, process, or implementation. It may be product, price, or placement.

It could be a whole range of things that both manufacturers, service providers and marketeers need to look at. However, if we maintain a culture of denial, we are left with only three things: wasted resources, a missed opportunity for a learning process and finally, a witch-hunt of who to blame so that any corporate responsibility for failure can be deflected from ourselves at the cost of someone else’s feelings/career.

Authentic leadership embraces failure. These leaders know that they are not the centre of the corporate universe and they themselves are mortal and prone to make the odd mistake. It is what they do with this knowledge that defines them as outstanding. They learn from mistakes and assess, review, and challenge themselves and others to turn failure into ultimate success. They see failure as a step on that road rather than a cul-de-sac in which one should embarrassingly reverse out of.

Maybe it’s time we had a ‘Museum of Failure’ outside of Sweden. It will be a healthy point of contrast and reflection to the corporate world and, after the General Election of 2017, we could do with one for politicians as well. It all boils down to having the strength integrity and courage to say ‘I got it wrong, and that’s right on the road to excellence.’

David Cliff is managing director of Gedanken

Further reading on failure

David Cliff

Dr David Cliff

Dr David Cliff is managing director of Gedanken.

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