The failure in the success and the success in the failure

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Michael Schrage writes in HBR.org about the failure of failure. While it is beginning to dawn on the business community that failure is an important part of business and it should be used as a means of learning, there are still many mysteries around how exactly to incorporate that into everyday practices.

But Schrage takes a different look at the question of failure. He asks which failure is the best to learn from. His answer – failures that are not complete failures. He uses an example from a statement by an engineer trying to explain that they learned more about the recent disaster in Chile from buildings that almost collapsed than from building that totally collapsed. Here is how he summarizes this point:

In this respect, the structural engineering insight from Chile and other disaster zones makes conventional perceptions of “learning from failure” a misnomer. The real epiphany is that what makes the “partially damaged” structures so valuable to learn from is that they were less failures than underachievers. That is, there was enough “success” in what was left standing that good engineers now have empirical evidence of what they can do better next time.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the power of small victories and how focusing on them is a great way to increase happiness, learning and satisfaction. Maybe the lesson from what Schrage writes is that we need to also focus on small failures. Not the big ones where everything went out of order, but the small ones, where you can directly and specifically improve (and in the process, gain small victories).

Avid readers of this blog (is the plural “s” here relevant??) out there would point that just a couple of weeks ago I wrote that we should focus on what works instead of what doesn’t work. Now suddenly you want us to focus on what did not work? Well… yes.

First, because part of my philosophy is that we need to celebrate contradictions (F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time”). Second, because these are two different mind tools. One is useful to try and find a way out of hard situations and instrumental in creating change (and see more on this in the new book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard). The second is a tool for constant improvement. Both are essential in the day to day portfolio of the business manager.

But the importance of the two tools goes even deeper. When something fails it is vital to focus not only on what isn’t working, but also on what is working as this many times represents the way out of the failure. On the other hand, whey success happens it can be blinding. That is when we need not only to learn from the positive results (which is very important) but also focus the mind on the little things that could have gone better or that we got lucky with (and luck always plays a role).

So, how do you use the failure in the success and the success in the failure?

Elad

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