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Focus on Failure!

Posted by Mark Bennett on February 6, 2010

funny dog picturesNo, this is not advice to try to fail, but rather if (and when) you do fail, you’ll want to expend some time, thought and energy into actively learning from that failure. This is hinted at by an interesting finding from some neuroscience research done at MIT, which has implications not only for individuals, but organizations as well.

The research showed that the part of the brain that tracks success and failure appears to change and process more efficiently after success, but not after failure. What does that mean for us? Here’s a telling quote from the HBR article citing the research:

“But after failure,” Miller points out, “there was little change in brain activity.” In other words, the brain didn’t store any information about what went wrong and use it the next time. The monkey just tried, tried again.

In other words, left to its own devices, our brains will likely not learn from failure. Fortunately, we have the ability to recognize that fact and take steps to correct it. We can pause after failure and seriously ponder what went wrong – what was the cause of the failure? But that takes time, thought and energy to figure it out.

Now, consider what you might be short of in an organizational culture dominated by fear. That’s correct; there’s never enough time, don’t stop to think – act, and the energy generated by fear is more typically applied to shift the blame or hide the failure than in learning from the failure. So, without Psychological Safety, as Victorio puts it, you get a compounded problem with failure. First, as we already know, people will be averse to taking risk in general. That means fewer opportunities for innovation, profit, etc. Secondly, when failure does occur, its ability to even have any positive learning effect at all is almost entirely wiped out. No learning occurs automatically and, since more effort is spent hiding the failure or shifting the blame, no learning from thinking through the failure occurs either. Since no one sees any benefit from taking the risk, the cycle is reinforced and even fewer risks are taken and even less learning occurs.

However, if your organization has tolerance for thoughtful risk-taking, the cycle can be turned positive. Just recognize that a bit more effort is required to make a failure become a learning experience. Avoid what happens to the monkeys!

12 Responses to “Focus on Failure!”

  1. Bill Kutik said

    Failure?!? I wouldn’t know anything about that.

    But when there is a problem, I’ve always firmly believed that it can’t be solved until it’s determined whose fault it was.

    This is why I work alone. Nice post, Mark.

  2. I’m all about monkey analogies: http://compforce.typepad.com/compensation_cafe/2010/01/show-me-the-monkey.html

    Seems like monkeys are popping up all over the place these days.

    • Hey, hey for the monkeys, I say! Your post was excellent! I really am intrigued by these studies that seem to point to an innate attraction to uncertainty (or its effects), even while we also demonstrate that we are afraid and repelled by it as well. What generates the anxiety might be part of the excitement as well, I guess.

  3. The irony is, unless you’re open to the possibility of failure, you can’t succeed!

  4. Meg Bear said

    Great post Mark. I recently attended a training that pointed out the obvious that if you have a culture that is afraid of failure you ultimately end up doing far less. Exactly as you are saying here.


  5. Great perspective, Mark. Culture is critical to organizational agility and learning. When there is fear of failure, an organization is doomed to fail just because it’s not open to learning from mistakes. The challenge is holding people accountable to results without that always meaning someone gets fired for failures. How someone “fails” should also be considered.

    • You’re right, Beverley. Accountability is the key – it’s built on trust and commitment and done right it acknowledges (and can therefore prepare for) the possibility of failure. But like you said, it focuses the learning because now the person who was accountable for the failure is now accountable for the lessons it holds.

  6. […] expecting a different result.”  When something doesn’t work, don’t give up and declare it a failure.  Reevaluate your actions and find a different solution.  A change in your methodology should […]

  7. […] fatal, stifling research, squashing productive debate, and killing progress. And while you may learn more from your successes than your failures, you can’t succeed until you feel safe, and that means being able to risk […]

  8. […] Focus on Failure! […]

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