Leadership Spotlight

Learning from Failure  

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

-Bill Gates, Founder and Chairman of Microsoft

Failure is part of the learning process. It occurs everywhere and at any time. It shapes our experiences: who we are, how we lead, and what our organizations ultimately become. Failure can occur in our professional and personal lives, but it is how we deal with and transcend it that really counts. For most of us, dealing with failure is an uncomfortable and unnatural behavior. Typically, many of us would like to run away when it occurs and for things to return to the status quo as soon as possible. But, allowing our leaders, managers, and employees to quickly forgive and forget may lead to major consequences in the future. If we do not work to improve upon failure, it inevitably will occur a second time.

Examining what went wrong is critical to the future success of those affected by failure. For that reason, the U.S. military conducts after-action reports and debriefings, and the FBI National Academy conducts “hot washes” after each 10-week session. Jack Welch, former chairman of General Electric, called it “examining the car crashes,” and Jim Collins, a notable leadership guru and author, referred to it as “conducting autopsies.”

I propose using a RADICAL (review, analyze, diagnose, independent, candid, accountable, and learn) departure from how you traditionally have viewed and acted toward failure. The purpose is to conduct an in-depth review of the failed project or event. First, bring all parties back together at an appropriate time; the closer to the end of major operations the better. Analyze all facets of the recent failure, to include logistics, administration, decision making, timing, job responsibilities, coordination, and leadership. Diagnose the true reasons of failure without any talk of remedies or solutions. Independently verify why the failure occurred through objective or external means. In this step, be candid and do not hold back; honesty and frankness must be part of examining failure. Accountability regarding specific roles and responsibilities needs to be ferreted out. Most likely, the finger pointing began soon after the failure occurred.

Finally, learn from the failure. Determine what occurred, why it happened that way, and what can be done better next time. Will additional training and education help? How can you avoid the same pitfalls and traps next time? Will your systems and processes become more efficient? This final step serves to address these questions and allows you to come away smarter, better, and more productive the next time around.

Do not let these learning moments slip away, especially when our natural tendency is to run from failure. As noted statistician Dr. W. Edwards Deming once said, “Managers who focus on failure become experts on failure.”

Special Agent Gregory M. Milonovich, an instructor in Faculty Affairs and Development Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.