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Learning from failure is what separates the good from the bad

The former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once defined success as “stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm,” but a new book, “Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well” (Atria Books), suggests that the concept of failure is significantly more complex than merely the polar opposite of whatever success might represent.

Written by organizational psychologist Amy Edmondson, “Right Kind of Wrong” examines how individuals and organizations can best embrace natural human fallibility so that when failure inevitably occurs, it can be addressed in the most positive and constructive way possible.

As professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, Edmondson’s central premise is that, for the most part, it’s not failure per se that is a problem but, rather, our failure to learn from failure. “As the old comic-strip character Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us,” she writes. 

As Edmondson admits, she has not only studied those mistakes and failures witnessed across a wide variety of businesses, but she has experienced plenty of them herself. 

The key, she believes, is learning how to feel better about being so fallible.

“When we see failures as shameful, we try to hide them. We don’t study them closely to learn from them,” she writes.

“The idea that people and organizations should learn from failure is popular and even seems obvious. 

“But most of us fail to learn the valuable lessons failures can offer.” 

Crucially, every kind of failure, be it good or bad, should bring with it ample opportunities for reflection, learning, and, ultimately, improvement.

“When we see failures as shameful, we try to hide them. We don’t study them closely to learn from them.”

Author Amy Edmondson

“You might think that the right kind of wrong is simply the smallest possible failure. Big failures are bad, and small failures are good,” she writes.

“But size is actually not how you will learn to distinguish failures, or how you will assess their value. 

“Good failures are those that bring us valuable new information that simply could not have been gained any other way.”

It’s not as simple as learning from mistakes, it’s how you learn from them and that, explains Edmondson, requires a clever mix of cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal skills.

“The science of failing well, like any other science, is not always fun,” she writes. “It brings good days and bad. It’s practiced by fallible human beings working alone and together. 

“But one thing is certain. It will bring discovery.”

Throughout the book, Edmondson explores a wide variety of case studies from industry, examining those organizations that have not simply embraced failure as part and parcel of their work culture but who are now benefiting from what seems, at first glance, to be a counter-intuitive approach.

And there are a surprising number.

Worried that his team had become too risk-averse, then-chief creative officer of Grey Advertising Tor Myhren launched a “Heroic Failure Award,” while the Tata Group has its own “Dare To Try Award.”

NASA, meanwhile, has its “Lean Forward, Fail Smart Award,” launched in the aftermath of the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003. 

At European fashion retailer C&A, meanwhile, CEO Giny Boer introduced Failure Fridays, where “colleagues share what did not go well and — most importantly — what they learned from it,” she tells Edmondson.

Some companies also view failure as a genuinely positive attribute, as it can reveal ambition, courage, and innovation.

When Edmondson visited the offices of Google in 2019, for example, the director of their Google X projects, Astro Teller, was asked by a member of staff if the rumored layoffs were going to happen any time soon. Teller responded by saying that “if layoffs were needed, the first to go would be people who had never failed,” writes Edmondson. 

In an innovative tech company like Google, she adds, you simply can’t afford to have employees who are not willing to take any risks.

“People who take smart risks will, inevitably, sometimes fail. That’s what good performance looks like.”

Failure can also be celebrated socially, says Edmonson.

In 2012, during a mezcal-fueled night in Mexico City, for instance, five friends revealed their biggest failures to each other and it was such a revealing evening that it even spawned a new networking organization, The Failure Institute. 

Now, the Failure Institute hosts its famous “F–k-up Nights,” where guests can take to the stage and share their failure tales in front of an audience, in three hundred cities across 90 countries.

“Their success can be seen as a virtuous cycle — where participants take the risk of speaking about a failure, receive applause, feel rewarded, and discover together what a psychologically safe environment feels like,” writes Edmondson.

The danger with celebrating failure, be it socially or professionally, is that you run the risk of it possibly overshadowing most everything else in your life including the successes.

When scientist Melanie Stern wrote an article in the journal Nature, citing her many professional failures and then invited her peers to compile their own resume of failures, the challenge was accepted by Johannes Haushofer, then a professor of economics at Princeton, who made an exhaustive list of all the rejections he had endured from degree programs to academic journals, award schemes to job applications on his own website. 

The list was so comprehensive, however, that it soon went viral, leading Hauhofer to conclude that “This darn CV of Failures has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work.” 

Often, though, it is the innate fear of the negative consequences that dissuades people from admitting to and/or addressing their failures. It’s why companies like Ford and organizations like NASA have now introduced ‘blameless reporting’ to encourage employees to come forward without fear of further action.

As Edmondson writes: “A healthy failure culture rewards intelligent failure. Without it, there can be no innovation.

“Without innovation, no organization can survive over the long term.”

Sometimes, however, what appears to be a frustrating failure can lead to huge, almost unimaginable success. 

In 1968, at 3M’s central research laboratory in Minneapolis, Minn., for example, chemist Spencer Silver had been working endlessly to develop an adhesive strong enough to be used in the construction of aircraft but had failed time and time again.

But one of those many failures, when Silver inadvertently used the wrong amount of chemical reactant, resulted in a thin, weak substance with such unique properties that could be removed from surfaces just as easily as it stuck to them. 

And so the Post-It note was born.

Today, Spencer Silver’s “failure” means that 3M sells more than 50 billion Post-it notes each year. They remain among the five bestselling office products in the United States.

It’s a success story born out of continued failure, but Silver’s accidental alchemy also demonstrates how failing should at the very least, build knowledge and understanding. 

In other words, failure, if it’s done right, should lead to new wisdom.

“Wisdom allows us to know when we’ve done as well as we can, and confronting ourselves will always be the hardest part of failing well,” writes Edmondson.

“Also, the most liberating.”