What Can Leaders Learn From Failure?

In a loss or a win, I find the real power of getting to the root cause lies in the ability to facilitate a more genuine understanding of what really happened.

What can leaders learn from failure? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

Society reinforces the importance of learning from our failures. We have been conditioned to accept that we learn from our failures and losses. Those failures drive us to achieve and create different solution sets. They force us to ask different questions and reframe our approach. We learn from these, often, because we are forced to – by our own inner drive or sense of failure, or that driven by a board or a boss.

There is no shortage of leaders who have failed over and over and over again – yet who have gone on to some of the most important discoveries and successes in our lifetime. We have heard about Thomas Edison’s countless failures and the shortcomings of Walt Disney, who supposedly lacked imagination. Did they learn from their failures – yes, but they also learned from and built upon their successes.

Much of my orientation on learning lies in understanding successes—of people and organizations. We all have experienced setbacks, losses and failures – in my case, too many to count. But my greatest learnings have come from both understanding and analyzing the wins as much as understanding and agonizing over the losses. Our foundation is built upon the victories that pile up over time—it is why leaders are where they are- they may address the losses, but they build upon the victories.

Psychologically it is harder to spend time on the wins—often, because there is not something driving an immediate correction. Yet, when I employ the discipline to actually spend as much time analyzing the wins, my learnings become more important to me and those that work with me. We do not take a deficit-based view of any aspect of the company—we focus on building on strengths. Of course, we do address the losses (and I take everyone very personally) and work to identify the positive aspects on which to change and build.

In a loss or a win, I find the real power of getting to the root cause lies in the ability to facilitate a more genuine understanding of what really happened. This means that when we reflect on all the elements, not just the obvious ones, we must challenge our thinking. No matter what we do, I always question our team – How can we rethink this? What if we could do this over? You may notice that no dialog starts with the question killer—“Why?” WHY did we lose? WHY did that happen? WHY weren’t the appropriate safety measures in place? Why did we do what we did? Yes, Why is important to a company and to leadership but not best applied when we are thinking about winning and losing. Why? It kills the conversation, puts people on the defensive and often inhibits the learning that is fundamental to changing actions and behaviors.

By merely changing WHY questions to WHAT or HOW questions, we’ve now opened the investigation up to learning, rather than assigning blame. Asking anyone why something occurred immediately puts them on the spot. Their heightened and activated fear response is likely to obscure at least part of the information you really need to know. By asking WHAT questions we can begin to gather better information that truly reveals the forces at work that led to a less than desirable outcome. WHAT leads away from blame and loss to understanding and repositioning for the win.

By tuning in to how we win, when we win, what it took to win, and how often we win, we’re reprograming ourselves and playing to our strengths by noticing them and deploying their gifts. There’s incredible value in noticing what went into a win. Small wins build our confidence and proficiency but only when we don’t take them for granted. We can miss critical connections that lead to a win if we don’t honor them.

The conversation around learning from our failures and losses will not go away – and neither should it. It seems almost obligatory that we work to salvage something out of time, money, energy and sometimes even hope, lost. Recalibrating your leadership to reflect on the wins and losses can drive the change in the organization that will ultimately reduce the losses. The bottom line is that learning must remain an ongoing imperative for the company to continue to evolve, grow and achieve its full potential.

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