Good Failure (Part 2): Fast & Flexible

If you think simply learning from your failures will lead to success, you are wrong. “Wait just a minute,” you might say. “Grandpa Wilbur’s axioms of life never steered me wrong when I lost the little league game while trying to catch a fly ball with my face.” We all remember when someone picked us up when were down by explaining the virtues of learning from our mistakes. However, our future success was not solely dependent on learning that picking dandelions in the outfield leads to black eyes. We also had to change our course of action (hopefully before the next pop fly).

In my last post, I asked the questions: When is failure a good thing? When does it lead to success? I made the case for a framework that would allow one to go beyond the inspirational quotes and truly have an understanding of how and when to embrace failure. I proposed that failure must be accompanied by three “F” words: flexible, fast, and fun.

Learning is not a bad thing, it is just inadequate when dealing with failure. Organizations, teams, and individuals must be flexible enough to make real changes based on those lessons. More importantly, the changes must happen quickly. Imagine you have spent your entire adult life searching for gold in the foothills of the mountains. After a lifetime of hard work, you now know that your techniques and locations were all wrong. You ride off into the sunset knowing that your failures have brought many important lessons. However, your success never arrived. Had you recognized the lessons more quickly and changed your behaviors sooner, you would be riding off in a gold-plated saddle.

Many organizations experience failures and identify the causes. However, changing course quickly is much harder for them. We are not wired to change quickly, especially if we are experts who have worked long and hard to develop the techniques that are not working. My years of working in the education sector provide a good example. We often struggle to use data effectively and quickly at both the systematic level and the student level. For example, in far too many cases, teachers are not armed with up to the minute data on student learning that can be quickly analyzed and applied for immediate course correction. Students often find themselves struggling for years before the problems and solutions are identified. Data and quickly derived prescriptions for change are the keys to turning failure into a positive force, especially given the limited timeframe in which a student progresses through the education system.

The longer your team or organization spends figuring out whether a particular strategy is working, the more of your limited resources are drained on ineffective means.  In his book, Joy Inc., Richard Sheridan, founder of Menlo Innovations, provides a great narrative of why getting to failure faster is so important when it comes to software development. He describes how identifying failure quickly and changing gears immediately saves time and money for both himself and his clients. In fact, he attributes much of the problems with software in the 1990’s (i.e. the blue screens of death) with a failure to course correct during the tight timelines of software development.

Thus, one of the keys to making failure a positive force is ensuring that you are flexible and fast when it comes to the response. In my next post, I will summarize the last “F” word: fun. It is my favorite, and the one that teams forget the most when it comes to making failure a building block to success.

Dave Seitz, Cofounder of Think Space, a unique and inspiring business meeting and retreat center. Follow Think Space on LinkedIN