Blog Post

Foster Failure to Accelerate Learning

Julie Winkle Giulioni

Author, Speaker and Consultant Specializing in HR, Leadership and Career Development

If you've been on Instagram lately, there's no shortage of inspirational quotes on the topic of #failure.

"Fail often so you can succeed sooner." - Tom Kelley, innovation expert

"The one who falls and gets up is stronger than the one who never tried." - Roy T. Bennett, author

"Mistakes are the best teachers." - Mohnish Pabrai, businessman

"Failure is another stepping stone to greatness." - Oprah Winfrey, celebrity

Are you inspired to go out and make some big mistakes yet? Quotes like these contribute to an intellectual understanding of the value of failure. But it's the attitudes and behaviors of your organization's management that determine how much risk and experimentation actually occurs within the walls of your offices... and how much learning is extracted from it.

Whether an organization is focused on innovation, expansion, quality improvement or almost any initiative, success generally comes with (and as a result of) countless errors, mistakes, missteps and failures - large and small. Happily, the learning and development function is in a unique and powerful position to help propel the organization forward by creating a culture that recognizes this - a culture that not only tolerates but actually fosters failure as a way to accelerate learning and business results. Here's how.

Bring Failure Out of Hiding

When things go wrong in many organizations, they're hidden away. Leaders, concerned about their reputations and the ability to secure future funding, bury mistakes and draw as little attention to them as possible. This creates a downward spiral as leaders look around the organization, see only what's working well, figure they're the only ones experiencing failure and keep their mistakes quiet, too.

Playing hide-and-seek with failure has damaging consequences. It undermines candor and confidence - but it also robs people throughout the organization of vital information that can inform their work. People don't learn what's not working from others and may repeat mistakes unnecessarily, wasting time and money.

Learning and development professionals can help change this dynamic. Using real-life failures in a timely way as examples and case studies can communicate critical information while underscoring the link between mistakes and learning. Additionally, inviting those involved in instructive failures to offer their insights through interviews or by facilitating learning experiences removes some of the stigma associated with failure and helps the culture appreciate these courageous individuals and the value of what's been learned through mistakes.

Teach Leaders to Manage Risk and Embrace Failure

Most leaders (like most people) don't grow up learning to welcome and leverage failure. So, if learning and development professionals want to help the organization accelerate learning by squeezing learning from the failures that are a natural part of doing business, they'll need to help leaders develop a new mindset and skill set. Specifically, leaders need to be taught to:

Mitigate risk. Let's face it... organizations can't afford to fail at every turn. As a result, leaders must learn how to evaluate risks, anticipate issues and manage situations where the chance for failure is great. They must learn to strategically assign risky or out-of-the-box projects or initiatives to those best suited to extract the most from them. And they must master methods of monitoring and managing these assignments, so they remain within acceptable failure tolerance ranges.

Debrief errors, mistakes and failures to find the learning. When things don't go as planned, leaders need to recognize the learning opportunities that exist and help others do the same. Through well-timed dialogue, they must help others mine failures for lessons and strategies focused on what to do differently in the future. They must learn to remain curious rather than critical, positive rather than punitive and future-focused rather than frightening.

Failure can be one of the fastest ways forward. And learning and development professionals can play a key role in creating a culture that embraces mistakes for what they really are: powerful tools for individual development and organizational growth.

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