Failure is the new black. In many fast-growing technology companies, if you are not failing, then you may as well pack your bags and go home. Conferences and events around the world are now dedicated to sharing stories of failure. Failure fetishists are all around us, eager to fail, and eager to hear about others who have failed.
But somewhere along the line, many of us have forgotten that not all failure is good. Nor should it be celebrated.
Sure, a love of failing opens us up to taking risks, often without consequence or punishment. But leaders who repeat the mantra of “fail fast, fail often” may be setting their team up for unhelpful behaviours.
When it comes to failure, we need to remember that sometimes it is productive, but other times, it is not. Here are three questions to ask yourself to make sure your failure is actually moving you forward, and not setting you back.
Did you learn something?
In the midst of our love of failure, many of us have forgotten why failure became popular in the first place – because it helps us learn and improve. We learn far more from our failures than we do from our successes.
Because we are told to fail quickly, we don’t often spend enough time reflecting on what went wrong. We simply move onto the next experiment. To ensure you are milking as much benefit from your failures, set aside reflection time after every failure to make sure you are clear on the big lesson coming out of it.
Did you share those learnings widely?
Assuming that you did learn something from your failure, the next problem occurs if you kept those learnings to yourself. Not because you are selfish, but just because you are trying to move quickly and fail fast into the next experiment. If you failed to share your learnings outside of yourself or your team, you are missing a big opportunity.
Failure is most powerful when the stories and lessons are shared widely. Ideally, your company will have a method for sharing stories of failure to allow others to learn without having to experience the exact same failure.
Did you change your behaviour/product/thinking?
Behaviour change is hard. And because failure can be deflating, it doesn’t really leave us in a great state of mind to change our behaviour. But for failure to have the biggest impact on future success, it needs to lead to change.
Sometimes this change will be in the form of iterating a product or service idea. But other times, it will be about changing our own behaviour. We might fail at sticking to a new exercise regime. We might fail at hitting an important deadline for a project. We might fail at clearly communicating our learnings to others at our company.
When this happens, we need to reflect on what caused our failure and iterate our own behaviour. It’s through changing ourselves that will help failure lead to the biggest successes.