Perspective: Learning from failure

Failure is an essential step towards excellence -- here's why.

Failure is an essential step towards excellence. On an individual basis, creativity and integrity require honest self-evaluation of our own words and deeds. At a corporate level, this means analyzing where IT projects go wrong, so we can isolate causes and prevent future problems.

Casting blame is easy but serves little purpose. Instead, teams should engage cooperatively to examine failures and cultivate genuine solutions. Respect and dispassionate evaluation are essential to create deeper understanding when things go wrong.

One practitioner who understands the need for cooperative learning is Steve Romero, who is IT Governance Evangelist at CA Technologies. Steve travels the country incessantly, talking with IT folks and executives about precisely this issue.

In this excerpt from a blog post, Steve offers advice on relating to failure in a positive and healthy manner:

Organizations must use the F-word. They must use failure as a springboard to success. Here's how:

Recognize that failure is an option. Everyone knows that nobody is perfect. Put posters up to remind folks. Recognizing the inevitability of failure is absolutely prerequisite to achieving any of the benefits failures potentially provide.

View inevitable failures as preventable and manage the contradiction. Once an organization recognizes failures are inevitable, they must simultaneously view them as preventable. Accepting this apparent contradiction is essential if there is to be any chance of fostering the unending quest to prevent failures in spite of the impossibility to do so.

Remove the stigma of failure. Elements of this are accomplished when organizations recognize failure as an option and accept their inevitability, but it's not enough. The initial response to failure cannot be punitive. The pursuit of cause must not be driven by the desire or need to assign fault or blame. Leaders must foster a culture that makes it safe to fail if there is any chance of cultivating the trust required for folks to freely and readily share bad news.

Define failure and interpret it as a fact-based metric-driven indicator. Failure is a state. Failure is a condition. To be exact: failure is an omission of occurrence or performance. Organizations must specifically define these omissions so the term is correctly and consistently applied.

Treat failure as a learning opportunity. The ultimate goal of each of the above recommendations is to enable the establishment of the foundation and mechanisms to learn from failure. The first impulse and the immediate response to failure should be to learn from that failure. This learning is used to correct, minimize, or overcome the failure and apply all associated insights to attempt to prevent failures in the future.

These are wise words, rooted in deep experience, and I urge you to consider them seriously.

Advice for enterprise buyers: Avoid the negativity of those who (ab)use failure by pushing their own agendas and casting blame. At the same time, ignore fear-mongering consultants, commentators, analysts, and writers who prey on the insecurities of enterprise buyers. Far better to engage your team in measured, reasonable, and respectful dialog; that's how to learn from failure.

Photo by Michael Krigsman: ignoring the lessons of failure makes us a target for repeated disaster.