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Successful Failing: Why Embracing Failure Leads to Greater Achievement

Steve Hall
Written By: Steve Hall
Posted on May 25, 2016

Our culture is built on success. Ironically, we can only achieve the highest levels of success by failing along the way.

Failure is the basis of knowledge. Imagine you’re back in elementary school. Your teacher has just placed two apples on each end of her desk and asks, “If I added these two apples to the other two apples …”—she physically moves them together—"… how many apples would you have?” She waits, then says, “Okay, class, now count them. One. Two. Three. Four.”

This is how most of us learned in school: repetition and visual learning. Kids will chant along, correcting their answer when they realize it’s wrong. Failure in these very early stages is important; it teaches persistence and focuses on the importance of learning over knowing. And, eventually, we all learned that two plus two does indeed equal four!

The Success-Only Cycle vs. the Failure-Achievement Cycle

Sadly, over time, we abandon the elementary school approach and focus more on knowing than learning. Failure changes from a useful tool to punishment. By the time we enter the workplace, most of us have fully accepted that failure represents the result of an action, and we view it as nearly insurmountable.

Honestly, how useful is that philosophy? This Success-Only philosophy allows for only one option: You succeed, or you fail. This approach rewards knowing and only works if you already know how to do something. If you don’t know how to do the task already, well, you’re in trouble:

The Failure-Achievement Cycle, however, focuses on failing fast—and then learning from your mistakes. No one is expected to perform flawlessly. Instead, failure is viewed as a feedback mechanism that allows you to improve your plan and try again to yield better results. Failure isn’t considered the opposite of success; instead, this approach views failure as a critical component of it:

Successful Failing

Failing when trying something new or working towards solving a problem is admirable. This type of failure should be rewarded, provided that two key components were included in the effort:

  1. First, did you plan the activity, initiative, or process to the best of your ability for the information that you had been provided at the time? Failure due to “just winging it” is not productive failure. Plan for success, work your plan, and adjust as needed.
  2. Secondly, did you learn from your failure? Successful failure requires you to analyze what happened and create a game plan for other possible solutions moving forward.

Failure can’t be a show stopper

Mistakes aren’t the end of the line. They merely delay achievement. When you fail successfully, you must make sure that the delay is as short as possible.

As a progressive manager, who is always trying to grow your department, you should actively demonstrate to your employees that failure is welcomed. Give this a try. Hold a “learning from our failures meeting.” During the session, share some of the errors you’ve made in your career and how it helped you solve a problem. Encourage your staff to do the same, requiring them to explain what they learned from the experience and how it helped them become better employees.

Not only will your less experienced employees gain valuable knowledge from the more experienced ones, but it will reinforce to your staff that successful failure is an important part of your process. Done in the right way, it creates a great learning experience. Keep everyone focused on how the person improved from the experience and how to avoid the same mistake themselves. (It can also be a fun team experience, especially when you discover how entertaining others’ past mistakes can be! Be sure to share some funny examples of your own!)

Failure is painful and, of course, we’d all rather avoid it. But when we apply successful failing, we learn how to bounce back quickly from failure and achieve even more in the long run.

What’s your failure philosophy? Do you utilize a Success-Only approach or have you discovered the benefits of a Failure-Success cycle? Tell us here.

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