Learning from Failure

The Slow Leadership blog has an interesting post about “Practicing Conscious Incompetence“. What is Conscious Incompetence? In a nutshell, it is the act of learning from failure, but Slow Leadership defines it as:

“Conscious Incompetence” is doing something that you know you can’t yet do, let alone do well, for the purpose of learning how to do it better. It’s allowing yourself to make a mess and get things wrong, because you’ll never know how to do better until you get past that point. And it’s the basis of all learning. If you can’t allow yourself to make mistakes and probably look silly doing it; if you can’t allow yourself to attempt what you know you won’t be able to do at first; if you can’t allow yourself to take the risk of screwing up; then you also can’t allow yourself to learn or develop.

Its refreshing to see others talk about something that I’ve always believed in. All the theory in the world is worth very little if someone doesn’t apply it in the real world…and applying theory usually results in failure somewhere. Every person and organization should have the strength to step up, try something and move on if it fails.

Leaders should understand that their organization should embrace failure when it happens. The failure should be accepted, dissected to understand the reasons behind it, and then the organization should recover from the failure and move forward. Lora Banks sums it up nicely when she writes in her blog post titled ‘Leadership Skill: Recover, Don’t Persevere“:

The big difference between persevering and recovering through failure is that recovery requires a pause and a conscious choice about where you go from here based on what you have learned from failing. Webster defines persevering as, “to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning”.  Recovery is about fully stepping in, once again, to your leadership and moving forward with the new information rather than in spite of the learning.

According to a story recounted in a newsletter from the New & Improved website, Warren Buffett, the semi-celebrity CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, the act of making a mistake (and failing) is essential to the decision making process. Mr Buffett once told David Sokol, the CEO of a Berkshire Hathaway controlled company, that:

David, we all make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t make decisions.

This comment was after Mr. Sokol told Buffett that they would have to write off $360 million for the year due to a project that didn’t work out as expected.

Not many companies can afford $360 million mistakes, Would you or your organization respond to a mistake of such magnitude in this same manner? What would happen if you were a CEO of a $10 million company and you were told by one of your VP’s that the $3 million R&D project was a failure? Would you try to assign blame and fire the VP or would you take a step back and dissect the failure and move forward with the ‘lessons learned’ from the project?

A person/organization who truly understands the art of learning from and recovering from failure should be stronger after living through the failure…as long the failure isn’t a ‘deadly’ one that pushes the organization/person into bankruptcy. A person/organization who learns from their failures should never have a ‘deadly’ failure because they’ve already learned what not to do from smaller failures and should be able to avoid the large ones.

[tags] Change, Innovation, creativity, learning from failure, learning by failling [/tags]