Talent Management

Learning From Failure Should Be Standard Business Practice

6min 18 Feb 2021

4 reasons why mistakes at work should be embraced as valuable learning moments 

The concept of failure is often cast in a negative light. But that needs to change, and fast. It’s our belief that businesses today must embrace instances of ‘failure at work’ as valuable learning moments that can spark development and growth. Here’s why.

I think it has to be a change of mindset—and it can be even something as simple as not calling it a mistake but calling it a ‘learning moment.

 Debra Corey, Chief ‘Pay It Forward’ Officer at DebCo HR

This quote featured in a panel discussion on the role of humility at work in 2021. Watch the full extract below:

Innovation and failure go hand-in-hand  

The best innovations rarely come together on the first try. Nor are they “one and done” when they finally launch. Success is an iterative process, dotted by a series of thoughtful failures.  

There’s always an opportunity to do something better or differently. Just because things have been done the same way forever doesn’t make abiding by the status quo the golden rule.  

But to embrace innovative thinking as their DNA businesses must offer employees and teams more autonomy and a sense of ownership over their work. Allowing them to make certain decisions on their own leads to positive outcomes, including increased job satisfaction, long-term employer loyalty, a boost in productivity, and improved workplace relationships.  

It’s also a great way to combat the negative impact of micromanagement, making it easier to recruit and retain the best talent. However, many businesses fear that creating a more autonomous culture can leave them exposed to failure—a risk many aren’t willing to take.  

Fifty years ago, if you tried and failed, that might have had a stigma attached to it. But today, failure is a badge of honor in some circles; some organizations celebrate failure.

 Luis Martins, Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, Growth, and Renewal at Texas McCombs

Many businesses are still failure-averse  

Failure is, unfortunately, a great scapegoat for rejecting disruptive thinking. The prevailing assumption is that it can negatively impact a business’s bottom line, undermine an organization’s goals, and harm morale when things don’t go exactly as planned. 

Knowing that not all failures are created equal, it’s still tough for businesses to “talk the talk” of innovation while remaining failure-averse. That’s why businesses must accept failure as inevitable—and just roll with it. “You have to embrace failure as a natural consequence and companion of entrepreneurship and innovation,” says Luis Martins, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Texas McCombsFortunately, more and more businesses are catching on, planning for failure in advance and accepting that it will simply be an opportunity to learn throughout the innovation process.  

You can’t control everything, just what you do—which is learn and try better. Being safe never works because you just don’t take chances.

 Luis Martins, Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship, Growth, and Renewal at Texas McCombs

It’s time to reposition ‘failure at work’ as a ‘learning moment’ 

Failure is not a dirty word or even a real measure of success. Businesses must seize failure as an opportunity to learn—even more important at such a tumultuous time in the world.  

 “Allowing employees to fail might seem scary, but the results aren’t always negative. Giving someone the opportunity to take on a project and be in control of its outcome—without fear of punishment for failing—can be a powerful motivator,” says Sebastian Bryers of the American Management AssociationFor this reason, we believe it’s time to give failure a rebrand because:  

1. Learning moments can spark new ideas

There’s a big difference between a ‘smart failure’ and sheer negligence. Just because you accept failure as “part of the process” doesn’t mean employees and teams should have free rein to make bad decisions. That’s why creating a culture of innovation requires setting clear ground rules. What may be a ‘smart fail’ for one business could be a disastrous and costly error for another. Mitigating risk must be baked into your innovation process. Without these boundaries in place, the unspoken implication may be that ‘failure’ should be avoided at all costs.  

A great example of this ‘smart failure’ philosophy in action is the “15 Percent Rule” at 3M. The long-standing management principle at 3M is the result of a rogue employee following his own innovative passions—and not complying with management’s guidance—in the early 1920’s. Funny enough, it also led to the invention of Scotch tape, a staple for which 3M has become known globally. There’s a much longer and interesting story around this, but the key takeaway is simple: Since then, 3M’s employees can dedicate up to 15% of their on-the-clock time to pursue whatever business-related ideas they’re most passionate about. And when those ideas are fully-baked, they can present them to management for consideration and support.  

Ground rules like these is a great strategy for giving employees the autonomy to pursue their passions while still keeping business operations moving at a full throttle.  

2. Learning moments can remove unnecessary stigma

In a two-year study that surveyed 280 teams, Google found the distinguishing factor between innovative and non-innovative teams to be psychological safety. “It’s not so much who is on the team but how they communicate,” explains Frederik Pferdt, Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist. “To promote psychological safety, leaders can be vulnerable and role model what trust looks like in a team.” This sense of trust and safety can eliminate failure’s stigma.  

At Talentsoft, we often talk about the importance of authentic leadership and the critical role that a business’s leaders play in modeling the actions and behaviors they want to see replicated across an organization. If business leaders can celebrate failure and shine a spotlight on the creative vulnerability, it becomes much easier to chip away at the fear and loathing of failure.  

Founder and CEO of LeaderFactor, Timothy R. Clark calls this intellectual bravery. “As a leader, you set the tone, create the vibe, and define the prevailing norms… to establish a pattern of rewarded rather than punished vulnerability.” This plays an important role in psychological safety and also reinforces the power that leaders have in transforming their company’s culture and approach to innovation. Removing the stigma of failure is essential for achieving this.  

Intellectual bravery is a willingness to disagree, dissent, or challenge the status quo in a setting of social risk in which you could be embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.

 Timothy R. Clark, Founder and CEO of LeaderFactor

3. Learning moments can create new opportunities for recognition  

Many businesses today celebrate failure with the same excitement they celebrate success. These companies see failure as a synonym for fearlessness in the face of innovation.  

To truly celebrate all the good that can come from failure, organizations must first get rid of their deeply-rooted fears of it. Getting there requires taking the extra step to publicly acknowledge it as something to be celebrated and rewarded. After all, when an entire organization sees its leaders applaud failure—regardless of the outcome—it communicates a company-wide message that failure is not something to be afraid of. Rewarding and recognizing failure in this way can be powerful for putting innovation at the core of a business’s culture. 

4. Learning moments can build a culture of learning and collaboration

Allowing employees and teams to be autonomous when it comes to innovation has a number of advantages. First, it makes “test and learn” thinking a fundamental part of a company’s culture. This is an important step in turning ‘smart failures’ into learning moments. Second, it can rally teams around shared goals and also boost collaboration in immeasurable ways.  

Getting there, however, requires a different kind of mindset. Employees, teams, managers, leaders, and businesses, as a whole, must not only be prepared to fail but also be excited to learn from those missteps. Creating a culture of endless learning and collaboration is a key element to any organization that sees innovation as the best investment for long-term business success. We may not have all the answers today to solve tomorrow’s biggest problems. But by learning from our mistakes and working together to overcome them, we can get one step closer.  

Learning from failure is the only path forward 

Even though the word ‘failure’ carries years—ahem, centuries—of cultural baggage, it doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to see it in a new light. In fact, the businesses that make it a priority to acknowledge mistakes at work as new opportunities to teach valuable learning moments are those that will be well-positioned for a future of unstoppable innovation. Placing great value on the passion, determination, vulnerability, autonomy, and vision of your employees can go a long way. That is, if you’re willing to accept learning from failure as your business’s new status quo.  

 To learn more about the key trends shaping HR and the world of work in 2021, be sure to download our latest eBook today!   

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