“I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  —Thomas Edison

Failure is an odd thing.  I cannot think of one thing that people resist more, feel worse about, deny most emphatically or avoid like the plague; yet it is the crucible of success.

Think about it:  Every time you’ve failed at something, you’ve carried that lesson with you for years, if not for a lifetime. Not only have you not made that error again but you’ve likely coached others (such as your team members) in not making it either. You’ve checked that box. Once done, you’re able to move on without that EVER occurring again. Thus, you’ve accomplished a great feat!  If this is true, why do we resist failure so much?

I think it goes to the traditional definition and what we’re taught early on. If you look in the Oxford Dictionary you’ll see that the concept of failure is not only a verb but a noun and an adjective. Here’s a synopsis of the definition:

Failure / 1. Unsuccessful; not good  enough. 2) weak; deficient; broken down. 3) a fault or shortcoming. 4) to disappoint or let down. 5) Go broke; bust. 6) incompetent, loser, dud, dead duck, and a damp squib [must be the British version!].

With all that, I sure don’t want to fail and darn sure don’t want to admit it.

But guess what?

  • When you’re trying your very hardest. . .  you’re going to sometimes fail;
  • When you’re reaching beyond your comfort level. . . you’re going to sometimes fail;
  • When you do something for the first time. . . you’re going to sometimes fail;
  • When you do something you’re inherently afraid of or nervous about. . . sometimes you’re going to fail;
  • When you don’t follow your values. . . sometimes you’re going to fail;
  • When your ego is on the line. . .sometimes you’re going to fail; and
  • When everyone is watching. . . sometimes you’re very likely to fail.

Even given all the opportunities for failure listed above and their consequences, it still holds true that the greatest failures can lead to the greatest successes.

So, as an environmental manager, what can you do to embrace failure as a learning tool within your group?

  1. Encourage employees to try their hardest, no matter whether they’ve done the task at hand 100 times or have never done it.  The chances of success are almost nil without a true effort.
  2. Emphasize personal responsibility.  It’s OK to fail at something, but it’s not OK to deny responsibility for the failure.  Make sure your team is clear that making excuses (read “The Dog Ate It”) and passing the buck will not be tolerated.
  3. Edit the process.  Review with your team the steps that led to failure, and understand where changes can be made the next time.  Make those changes to the process.
  4. Enter the arena again.  With lessons learned, encourage team members to step up to the task again with 100% effort.  If failure occurs, start again with the 3 steps above.  And of course, be sure to celebrate success!

In other words, to truly learn from our failures, we have to focus less on how we fell down, and more on how we can get back up and try again.  Your thoughts?