How To Make The Most Of Failure

FailureI was asked a hypothetical question: If someone caused a major failure to the business, would that be a reason to fire her.

I said no, because:

  1. It is unlikely that a single individual can actually be the only accountable person in such a scenario.
  2. If the error wasn’t malicious, that makes the failure a combination of judgmental errors, external events, and some bad luck. Neither is a cause for punishment.
  3. Assuming that a failure did not collapse the organization, the company will move on to its next business goal. It will need the people who know the business. It doesn’t make business sense to replace horses at that point.
  4. People who were at the epicenter of the failure are the ones who learned most from it, and will be the first to recognize the symptoms again. It would be stupid to get rid of them.

All this doesn’t say that punishing people for making mistakes doesn’t happen. Oh, they do.

One of the definitions of a safe working environment, is one where people are not blamed for failures. In such an environment, it is ok to be wrong. This does not mean we should  “celebrate failure”. First, failure can have hard consequences. Plus, if we celebrated every time we failed, we’d be pretty drunk most of the time. This invites other failures.

So how do we make the most of failure? We learn from it.

Answer these questions:

  • What are the consequences?
    Who got hurt and how? Identify the people involved, because you’ll get the information from them. And then there’s the next stage.
  • Should you blame someone else?
    No. Plus if you’re managing the person who is responsible, make sure he knows, and everybody else knows, that he is not going to get hurt. Use the list from the top for explaining why.
  • Should you apologize to someone?
    Yes, since it happened on your shift. If someone got hurt, go do it. Remember, respect for people.
  • Was this really a failure?
    Sometimes what we see as failure is not really that. It can also be a step on the way to success.
  • Is it a big or a small failure?
    Could be small enough, that it can be tolerated, rather than fixed at a big cost. As you can see, we started thinking about preventing the next failure. In that analysis, the next question is…
  • When was the point of no return?
    Think of the last point where the failure could have been averted. Can we set up a process to alert us the next time we go through this path?
  • What is the direct cause of the failure?
    We’re getting there. What can we do in order to be aware that this happened before, and remember what went wrong last time?
  • What is the root cause of the failure?
    Getting the root cause right is the most valuable, because fixing it is probably cheaper, and the result lasts longer. However, root cause analysis is a skill, and you need to do it many times to get good at it. Fixing a wrong root cause, can be another failure.
  • Share the story.
    Why should other people suffer the same fate? Document it where people will find it (it’s a lot harder than you think). Then present it to others face-to-face, so you will actually get your attention.
  • Try not to do it again.
    Unless you enjoyed this process.

You can learn a lot from failure. Once you set up a safe environment where people can experiment without the fear of failure, you’re on the road to success.

PS. I got twitted this by Rob Neppell, as I was writing the post.

I hope I at achieved one of those.

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