Learning From Failure

Losing a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly is one of life’s most traumatic experiences.  Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, had that experience almost three years ago.  Her husband died suddenly while working out in the resort gym where he and Sheryl were vacationing.  Some of you may know Sheryl from her first book, Lean In.  Several months ago she released a second book titled Option B in which she describes coming to grips with, and attempting to recover from, her husband’s death.  Major themes of the book include the power of resilience in the face of adversity and the capacity of the human spirit to persevere.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has gone through a life changing tragedy, or to anyone who would like to help a friend who has.

Beyond Sandberg’s personal story, the book also contains a remarkable chapter titled “Failing and Learning at Work.”  I’d like to devote the rest of this blog to that chapter.  Just as people need resilience, Sandberg says, organizations need to develop resilience as well.  How an organization responds to failure is typically a great indicator of its level of resilience.  In this chapter, Sandberg recounts some totally counter-intuitive research regarding predictors of success in space launches (she got interested in space launches after visiting Elan Musk’s Space-X headquarters in Los Angeles and watching rockets being launched).  While most people would expect the success of an organization’s previous space launches to be the best predictor of success in its future launches, exactly the opposite is true!  Surprisingly, the data shows that the more times an organization has failed at a rocket launch, the more likely it is to successfully put a rocket into orbit on its next try.  Furthermore, chances of a successful launch increase even more after a spectacular failure (such as a rocket exploding) compared to after a smaller failure.  So not only should we embrace and learn from failure, but that we actually can learn the most from our biggest failures.

Unfortunately, our natural instincts generally push us in exactly the opposite direction.  We are often too insecure or too proud to admit mistakes, or we get defensive and shut down.  A resilient organization helps its people resist the temptation to react this way, and creates a culture where owning and learning from mistakes is embraced.  Organizations that embrace, study and learn from their failures outperform their counterparts that don’t.

One organization that does this particularly well is the Marines.  A visit to the Marine Corps Base Quantico drove this point home to Sheryl.  As she tells the story, she was surprised to discover that after every mission (and even every training session) the Marines do a complete debrief.  What went wrong, what went right, and what can we learn.  The results of the debrief are recorded so that everyone can access them and learn from them.  The Marines clearly have a culture where failure is seen as a learning opportunity.  Organizations like the Marines that focus on learning from failure consistently outperform those that don’t.

At Baillie, one of our values is “To Encourage Risk Taking.”  We do pretty well at that.  But along with taking risks inevitably comes failure.  We probably don’t do as well at embracing and learning from our failures and then going out and risking again.  Our pride gets in the way.  We may even want to hide our mistakes. We need to get better at embracing learning from failure.  It’s hard, but shining the light on and learning from failure is one of the characteristics that makes already successful organizations continually improve and thrive.  Risk, fail, learn, risk again, fail, but eventually succeed.  That’s the formula for sustained success

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