Devil’s Advocate: Give Failure a Hug

You said it, bro.

You said it, bro.

I was reading an interesting article today on Idealist (via Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, hat tip to Ellen!) about embracing failure. I learned from the article that Engineers Without Borders publishes an annual Failure Report about the various things that didn’t work on their project sites and what they learned from those failures.

I sat at my computer for a full minute taking it in. That, I can honestly say, is organizational awesomeness.

As a new development employee, I was scared to death of failure, for several reasons:

  1. I was creating a position that had never existed.
  2. I was under a microscope as one of two employees (the other of which was my husband).
  3. I was learning as I went, and wanted to prove myself and my abilities.
  4. As a bright student and overachiever, I had never come face-to-face with failure.
  5. I just didn’t like falling on my face, I guess. It was embarrassing and bad for morale, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Over the years, however, whether from the numbing weight of the job itself, my growing adeptness at it, the natural growing-up process, or a combination of all three, I came to embrace failure. I was failing all the time, and I still do. Often.

None of us try to set ourselves up for failure; it tends to follow those with the best of intentions more closely than most. Failure exists, and it is an empirical fact that the more things you do, the more often you fail. If you consider that it is the sheer act of being motivated and go-getting and awesome that makes you fail a lot, then it doesn’t really seem that bad.

What does failure really mean? You had an idea and it didn’t work for one reason or another. The key is to take stock of the whys of the failure. Was the idea faulty? Was there enough staff coverage? Were their tasks that didn’t get done, or were you testing a theory that just didn’t pan out? That’s not just failure, that’s research. Maybe the program or idea can be salvaged with an honest assessment of why it failed. Holding yourself accountable can turn a present failure into a future opportunity.

The bottom line is that we can learn from our failures. They can be skill-builders and team-builders. If your staff (or you yourself) make it a regular part of workplace culture to air out what ended much lousier than you anticipated, it can have a liberating effect. Rather than acclimating people to failure and increasing its percentage of the whole, it encourages people to realize that, in failing at a particular thing, they themselves are not failures. In fact, measure for measure, they probably have far more successes than their counterparts who aren’t willing to try new things.

At your next staff meeting, while you’re celebrating your angelic successes, exorcise your failure demons as well. Then give them a hug. With their help, you’ll be even more awesome the next time.

What was your biggest flop-a-rooney? What did you learn from it?


Posted on April 11, 2013, in Devil's Advocate, Kylie, Productivity, Project Management, Team Work, Workplace Issues, Your Career and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You’re so right here, Kylie! We can achieve a lot of things and still attain success, but how much of it comes from failure? I’d say most of it. If we fall on face as we trying something new, then never try again, we have a 0% chance of succeeding. The only way to truly fail is if we keep doing the same thing that never works.

    I once spearheaded a marketing campaign that I thought would hit the perfect demographic and bring in tons of calls and interest to our program. In the course of one month, we got maybe 6 phone calls from that advertising strategy. I was mortified and embarrassed when funders asked how it went… But you know what? I know that the strategy I used doesn’t work, so I won’t waste more money to continue a strategy that’s already a proven failure.

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