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Why Failure Isn't An Accomplishment

        posted by , March 24, 2013

Failure isn't an accomplishment.

Take a simple example — you manage a 20 million dollar project that fails. The executive team of your firm call you up to explain. Would you tell the failure was an accomplishment?

Organizations shouldn't punish honest failure. Strategies, programs, projects, processes and objectives fail — even when everyone is giving their best.

Learning from failure makes way more sense than punishing failure in many situations. For one thing, it encourages everyone in your organization to socialize failure rather than hiding it. Recognizing and learning from failure is important to risk reduction and continuous quality improvement.

That being said, failure isn't good. It's not something to be proud of. It's not something that you accomplish.

In the long run, failure can be a positive experience. It can lead to positive results. However, at the time it happens — it's bad. An airplane crash may lead to safety improvements that save many lives. That doesn't little for the passengers on the jet that crashes.

The following 5 beliefs about failure are all common. They're ordered in terms of effectiveness.

1. I've never failed

Denial is an extremely common coping strategy for failure. A culture of denial tends to erode and collapse.

2. I've accomplished failure

Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.
~ Vince Lombardi
The idea that failure is a learning opportunity is productive. However, the idea that failure is an accomplishment takes things a little too far. Feeling bad about your failures is part of the process of learning.

The soccer team that celebrates every time they lose because they tried their hardest isn't destined for greatness.

3. I hide my failures

A culture of blame and punishment encourages finger pointing and failure hiding. This is extremely destructive. In such environments, teamwork breaks down, politics explode and nothing gets done.

4. I'm open about my failure, I've learned from them

A culture that recognizes the negative impact of failure but learns from it. For example, Japanese companies commonly apologize for failure at every level of the firm. They have a culture of feeding failure into quality improvement.

5. I learn from my failures and the failures of others

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
~ George Santayana, philosopher

The next step beyond learning from your own failures is to learn from the failures of your organization. The failures of history in general are also instructive.

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