Failure Is An Option

May 11, 2011 by Bill Bradley


Title: Failure Happens!

Competencies: self-development, managing self, adaptability/flexibility/stress tolerance, self-control

Who benefits: all of us

Consultant Usage: good background information for executive coaches and management trainers

What’s it about?  Before I begin the actual post I want to give a “shout out” and dedicate today’s post to my new friends at the University of California Medical Centers.  If any of you are reading this today, please let me know in the comment section below.

My favorite vacation destination is Zihuatanejo, Mexico.  Many friends and acquaintances have said “Where?”  “Never heard of it!”  I ask them, “Did you ever see Shawshank Redemption?  Do you remember the scene near the end when Morgan Freeman’s character finds the envelope, opens it, and we hear him say ‘Zihuatanejo’.”  Folks generally go “Oh yeah, I remember that!” 

Movie goers also remember a rather wild young man shouting “Show me the money!”

But certainly one of the most memorable movie lines of all time is Tom Hanks’ “Failure is not an option.” 

Today’s post is about failure.  I am not recommending failure, but it happens.  In my nearly 40 years in human resource development I can point to 5-6 major successes.  While I can’t pinpoint a failure, almost everything else I did in my career is an unknown.  Did I succeed or fail?  I don’t know.  How many coaching assignments were successes or failures?  I don’t know.  The classes I taught, did they have positive impact or were they a waste of time and money?  I don’t know.

I do think wistfully that I should have taken more time to learn from what I was doing to know if I was doing the right stuff or if not, learn from the experience.

This is why I am personally please to recommend Amy C. Edmondson’s Strategies for Learning from Failure in the April edition of Harvard Business Review.  While the article is written for higher level management, there is something in there for everyone. 

She writes about two areas that I found particularly interesting.  First, she identifies three different kinds of failures: “preventable ones in predictable operations, which usually involve deviations from spec; unavoidable ones in complex systems, which may arise from unique combinations of needs, people, and problems; and intelligent ones at the frontier, where ‘good’ failures occur quickly and on a small scale, providing the most valuable information.”  Good learning for me.  Don’t cast all failures into the same bucket.

Second she writes extensively about the perils of “The Blame Game”.  What I found most interesting was that in her interviews with executives she asked them how many failures in your organization are truly blameworthy?  The responses were in the neighborhood of 2% – 5%.  She then asked them how many failures in your organization are treated as blameworthy?  The executive responses were in the 70% – 90% range.

She observes that when a small child makes a mistake we call it learning; when a big adult makes a mistake we have someone to blame.  Hmmmm.

It is a good read.  I recommend it.  In fact, most of the April edition of HBR is devoted to the topic.  Take a look at the Table of Contents and see if any other articles appeal to you. 

Note: If you are not a subscriber, you will have to pay a fee to read the whole article.  However, the opening paragraphs are “read-worthy” and there is a free 13 minute video “Learn From Failure” that accompanies the article.

Catch you later.
[tags]self-development, managing self, failure, failure is not an option, blame game, blameworthy, envisia, envisia learning, bill bradley, william bradley, bradley[/tags]

Bill Bradley (mostly) retired after 35 years in organizational consulting, training and management development. During those years he worked internally with seven organizations and trained and consulted externally with more than 90 large and small businesses, government agencies, hospitals and schools.

Posted in 360 Degree Feedback, Leadership Development

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  1. This is one of my favorites that you have written Bill and I will get the HBR article. Her distinctions are noteworthy and your opening comments even more so. I too have no idea what the impact of most of my work is or has been…I need to get better at finding out. Thanks…also started your book yesterday. I am really enjoying it. Lee

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