The Power of Failure: Why It Is One of Our Very Best Teachers

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How did the project turn out? Oh, we lost it. The project was a disaster from start to finish.”

Sometimes during the course of the day, we hear statements that stick with us. This was my sticker statement of the week.

I was having a conversation with someone who was talking about their job and some of the challenges that it encompasses. Almost in passing, they mentioned a project that they worked on — and that’s when this statement was uttered.

My question was this: what did you and your team learn from it? To put it in a nutshell, they basically walked away from it and moved on. I could almost hear the buzzer go off, and I wanted to say stop, rewind, and let’s go over that again.

A powerful learning tool

Failure is one of mankind’s most powerful learning tools. My father would always use this technique whenever I came to him and told him how something did not work out. His question was always the same: “What did you learn from it and what would you do next time to make sure you are successful?”

If you never failed, you never lived.

That little statement has stuck with me from childhood. If we do not learn from our mistakes, we are destined to revisit them again and again.

We are all familiar with the current state and the future state. There is another one that I call the permanent state. That is the mindset of a cycle of failure that is visited over and over again.

Failures need not be a permanent state that will hold us down. It is a temporary condition we should learn and grow from.

The key is to always analyze why failure happened. In business, that is called the debrief. In military parlance, a debrief is done after a mission or event. It does not matter which end of the scale it approaches — success or failure — because both are still put through the debrief process.

The key to unlock the failure cycle

Here’s what we should be asking: If you failed, why did you fail? If you succeeded, why did you succeed?

The gap between those two is the combination for getting it right more often than not. We need to build a model around debriefs and take a scalpel with a surgeon’s precision to each project or event regardless of the outcome.

Over the years, I have developed a three-step process to take an in-depth look at what happened. It includes:

1. Focusing — taking a focused look at the project and get each person involved in the project to put together a document that takes into account the following:

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    • What were the strengths of our team in taking on this project?
    • What were our weaknesses?
    • What did we achieve?
    • What did we learn?
    • What were the bright spots?
    • What were the low points?
    • If we did it again, what should we do differently?

2. Sharing — Give each team member time to share their thoughts on the project. I facilitate a lot of seminars, and the best ones are the ones where everyone is in the moment sharing their thoughts. This type of learning event allows all of us to learn from our mistakes. This is also (by way of design) a team-building process that builds rapport between team members.

3. Moving forward — Having reflected on the individual findings and sharing each of our thoughts, the question is “what now?” This is the critical step and the one that should now allow the team to capture the essence of success. We should now be able to coherently identify our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats going forward.

Working through it as a team

If this sounds familiar, yes, this is a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses/limitations, opportunities, and threats) but this time the analysis is on the project., and the project is put under the microscope.

What makes this more powerful is that this is a team finding, and everyone at this point should be on the same page. Having worked through this as a team brings about a certain solidarity amongst team members.

Focus on the vision of how you want the team to move forward and address upcoming projects or initiatives. Once the team fully connects with this vision, they will all feel energized to tackle the next project with open eyes and mindful of what it takes to get there.

That is because they will have their roadmap in place, and, they will know what success looks and smells like.

Mistakes and failures are often our best teachers. Deposit them into your learning bank and learn from each of them. These deposits will allow you to make withdrawals throughout your life, as well as during the life of the project.

If you are continually overdrawn, it means that you are not managing your account — and learning from your failures.

There are no failures – just experiences and your reactions to them. — Tom Krause

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.