Praiseworthy failure. Yes, it does exist.

A few years ago, as part of my MBA, I took a course on company renewal and failure (amusingly, the university promoted it under a different name because it didn’t want to publicise that it offered a course on failure). Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about failure. While getting older seems to be helping me learn from my failures, a knock-back I received last week reminded me that the sting of failure can still cut quite deep. Ouch.

Learning from one’s mistakes and understanding one’s ‘relationship with failure’ is not a particularly comfortable process. When I signed up for a course on failure a few years ago, I went into it thinking that perhaps I wasn’t always as forgiving of failure as I should be, particularly when dealing with my team at work (of course, by ‘perhaps’ I mean that I wasn’t, but at that time I wasn’t ready to own it).

By the end of the course, I had realised that the thing I was missing when it came to forgiving failure, was knowing where to draw the line between failure that is acceptable and failure that isn’t.

Enter Edmondson’s failure spectrum. The spectrum articulates what I couldn’t—that failure ranges from the blameworthy to praiseworthy. At the ‘blameworthy’ end, there is preventable failure (read ‘bad’ failure). This failure is all about the process—where an individual wilfully or otherwise doesn’t follow the established process or where the process is found wanting.

At the other end, is the ‘praiseworthy’ or intelligent failures. These failures are the very best kind because they are all about exploration, hypothesis testing and pushing the boundaries in the right way. These failures are how we move the world forward (in a good way without causing catastrophic damage). In a work environment, we want to encourage these types of intelligent failures.

In the middle of the spectrum, we have the complexity-related failures. These are the breakthrough failures that happen despite all the good processes and systems we put in place. It is important that we manage these (generally small) failures as they occur so that we don’t have more serious failures down the line.

But while that makes sense for dealing with failure in a professional context, what about on a personal level?

My personal definition of failure is not doing as well as I wanted. That isn’t to say that I accept nothing but perfection—my family would laugh at that—but that I have different levels of acceptable achievement depending on the particular context (hmmm, as I’m writing this now, I’m realising just how structured this all sounds).

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

JK Rowling

As someone who likes change and putting myself into challenging situations, I fail a lot, so understanding how to squeeze the learning from each failure event is important to me. Maybe it is to you too. In any case, here’s the most important thing that I’ve learnt about learning from failure.

Learning from failure is not automatic. Successfully learning from failure requires thought and attention.

There seems to be a general assumption that if people have the right attitude, learning from failure will automatically follow. Edmondson and Shepherd, folks much smarter than me, have shown that learning from a failure event is neither automatic nor instantaneous. It seems that part of the reason for this is that we tend to define learning as ‘problem solving’.

Problem solving methodologies are problematic because they focus on identifying and correcting errors or deficiencies in the external environment, effectively letting us off the hook when it comes to reflecting critically on our own behaviour. But if we only ever look outwardly, we’re likely to only understand half of the story.

Not surprisingly, our willingness and ability to confront and learn from failure, both in a personal and professional sense, is linked to our level of personal awareness or consciousness. Barrett’s Seven Levels of Awareness outlines the levels of consciousness that we may experience in different areas of our lives over time. It is when we get to the upper levels that we start to look for answers within ourselves.

This ability for self-analysis and to look beyond the external environment is critical in being able to fully understand reasons for failure (the why, not just the what). Let’s not kid ourselves, though. Taking responsibility for the why and accepting our personal contribution to a failure is hard. It’s hard when you’ve failed as a team; it can be even harder when you fail on your own.

This is the situation I found myself in last week. But having taken the time to reflect and let the sting dissipate (and having written this cathartic post!), I can see my failure for what it is—a praiseworthy attempt to jump the fence and get to where I want to be. I might not have made it this time, but at least now I know a lot more about that fence.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

 Winston Churchill

References

Edmondson, A 2011, ‘Strategies for Learning from Failure’, Harvard Business Review, April, pp. 48-55.

Shepherd, DA 2003, ‘Learning from business failure: Propositions of grief recovery for the self-employed’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 318-328.

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