Presenting Failure as Opportunity

For a business to succeed, it has to grow. Which means it has to try new things, new processes, new products, new ideas. And because it has to try, sometimes it’s going to fail. How it handles those inevitable failures goes a long way in determining how successful it will ultimately be.

Faced with failure, it’s tempting to shun it, deny it, assign blame and quickly turn and walk away. Once in a while, in the short term, this might even work. But over the long haul, this behavior is counter productive or worse. Faced with a prospect of shame, ridicule or even the loss of their jobs, people become hesitant, suspicious and unwilling to take the very type of strategic calculated risks necessary for innovation and growth. They and the company stagnate. While no business can tolerate or survive incessant failure, most misfires are the unexpected consequences of good intentions and thoughtful decisions that simply didn’t succeed. Those failures should not be treated as cause for blame. But rather an opportunity for learning and the basis of trying again, only better prepared.

First, it’s in everyone’s best interest to be proactive. When mistakes or unexpected results arise, acknowledge and report it once it’s known and confirmed. Don’t wait for it to come up, or spread through gossip, or the informal grapevine. Own it and face it. If there is a simple fix or adjustment that allows you to get back on track with minimal fuss, then do it. But it still needs to be reported so it can be learned from moving forward.

If it’s not so simple, then it needs to be shared in order to help find solutions and avoid further complications down the line. Keep your account brief and to the point, but be accurate and stay honest. The point isn’t to deflect blame, but to find solutions to prevent a similar scenario from recurring. If you have a good idea on how to mitigate the situation, suggest it as a possible way forward, no matter how unconventional.

Take care to discuss what went wrong with all the key players and stakeholders, focus on the journalistic four Ws and a H, what, when, where, why and how. Fight the urge to defend yourself, even if you are at fault. Acknowledge, own and get on with the process of learning from it. This allows you to end on a positive note, with confidence and optimism, because you’ve learned something. Maybe a few somethings.

To this end, you may want to prepare a list of lessons learned to the extent you can, before the AAR meeting. This is where you can begin to present the failure as an opportunity to learn from it, so you can move forward. They bring you and the organization closer to achieving the goals those misfires, unexpected consequences of good intentions and thoughtful decisions were intended to address in the first place.

NASA, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has an unofficial motto, failure is not an option. This is a laudable sentiment, especially in the light of dangers of space flight and exploration. But it’s also a mirage. NASA has sometimes tragically experienced its share of failures. That’s because part of their mission is trying new things. The point, however, is that they learned from their failures, seeing them is opportunities to try again, only better.

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