Develop your Career Potential
Learning from Failure There is the greatest practical benefit of making a few failures early in life. -T. H. Huxley No one wants to fail. Every one wants to succeed. Nevertheless, some businesspeople believe that failure can have enormous value. At Microsoft, founder Bill Gates encouraged his managers to hire people who have made mistakes in their jobs or careers. A Microsoft vice president says, "We look for somebody who learns, adapts, and is active in the process of learning from mistakes. We always ask, what was a major failure you had? What did you learn from it?" Another reason that failure is viewed positively is that it is often a sign of risk taking and experimentation, both of which are in short supply in many companies.
Harvard Business School professor John Kotter says, "I can imagine a group of executives 20 years ago discussing a candidate for a top job and saying, ‘This guy had a big failure when he was 32.' Everyone else would say, ‘Yep, yep, that's a bad sign.' I can imagine that same group considering a candidate today and saying, ‘What worries me about this guy is that he's never failed.'" Jack Matson, who teaches a class at the University of Michigan called Failure 101, says, "If you are doing something innovative, you are going to trip and fumble. So the more failing you do faster, the quicker you can get to success." One of the most common mistakes that occurs after failure is the attribution error. To attribute is to assign blame or credit. When we succeed, we take credit for the success by claiming it was due to our strategies, how we behaved, and how hard we worked. When we fail, however, we ignore our strategies, how we behaved, and how hard we worked (or didn't). Instead, when we fail, we assign the blame to other people, or to the circumstances, or to bad luck.
In other words, the basic attribution error is that success is our fault but failure isn't. The disappointment we feel when we fail often prevents us from learning from our failures. This means that attribution errors disrupt the control process. The three basic steps of control are to set goals and performance standards, to compare actual performance against the performance standards, and to identify and correct performance deviations. When we put all of the blame on external forces rather than our own actions, we stop ourselves from identifying and correcting performance deviations. Furthermore, by not learning from our mistakes, we make it even more likely that we will fail again.
Your task in this exercise is to begin the process of learning from failure. This is not an easy thing to do. When Fortune magazine writer Patricia Sellers wrote an article called "So You Fail," she found that most of the people she contacted were reluctant to talk about their failures. She wrote: Compiling this story required months of pleading and letter writing to dozens of people who failed and came back. "If it weren't for the ‘F' word, I'd talk," lamented one senior executive who got fi red twice, reformed his know-it-all management style, and considered bragging about his current hot streak. Others cringed at hearing the word "failure" in the same breath as "your career."
1. Identify and describe a point in your life when you failed. Don't write about simple or silly mistakes. The difference between a failure and a mistake is how bad you felt afterwards. A real failure still makes you cringe when you think about it years later. What was the situation? What were your goals? And how did it turn out?
2. Describe your initial reaction to the failure. Were you shocked, surprised, angry, or depressed? Initially, who or what did you blame for the failure? Explain.
3. One purpose of control is to identify and correct performance deviations. With that in mind, describe three mistakes that you made that contributed to your failure. Now that you've had time to think about it, what could you have done differently to prevent these mistakes? Finally, summarize what you learned from your mistakes that will increase your chances of success the next time around.