The Wisdom of Failure

This past weekend I was deeply inspired by youth leadership at Dalhousie University‘s student led Brains for Change event.  Thirty or so community resource people (me being one of them) were invited to participate in conversations with well over 100 students about big ideas that could become projects over the next few months.  Some amazing ideas to shift the shape of our city emerged – like get Halifax certified as a Fair Trade City.

I got to be in some cool conversations and one of them was about failure.  One of the risks we seem afraid of is anything that might remotely become failure.  And yet, failure is what we need in order to foster innovation, new ideas and new ways of doing things.  We put up so many barriers – risk management, liability, public response –  that we stifle creativity.

We also often respond to failure in very personal ways. We need to remember failure is an action, not an identity. It is not who we are or what we are; rather it is an event or situation, or it is related to a choice we have made – individually or collectively. Yet, most of us, at some point in our lives, have worn failure as an identity or have played the blame game around it.

In these situations, we have difficulty separating ourselves from the event or situation. It brings up all kinds of emotions: anger, guilt, regret, remorse, sadness, a sense of having let others – or ourselves – down. It can be overwhelming at times if we lose our sense of self in the failure.  We might even be  haunted by it, generating fear about participating in anything that might lead to another failure.

Personally or organizationally, in order to let it go, we need to be able to separate our sense of who we are, individually and collectively,  from the actions or choices that led to the failure.  We need to redefine success which then allows us to redefine failure. What if success was actually the learning process – what we learn from what happened – whether we see it as a success, partial success, not quite successful or dismal failure?

Let’s step back from the failure so we can get a different perspective of it.  What happened? What led to what happened? What decisions were made? Based on what information? Did we pay attention to all the information – the analytical, intellectual and the intuitive or gut reactions?  What could we do differently?  What’s the next iteration or prototype of what we were trying to do?

Failures provide valuable information – personally and organizationally. They help us know when we’re off course or when we’re not paying attention to something in our environment. Sometimes they lead us in a direction we hadn’t previously anticipated. In both business and personal circumstances “failure” has led to big breakthroughs. The classic business example is 3M’s post-it notes, now an institution in both home and office. Someone recognized the opportunity in a product “failure” (a glue that didn’t stick things together) and created a new revenue stream for 3M and a new way of drawing attention to things. What did we do before post-it notes?

Personal experiences of failure are often those points we look back on with gratitude because they shift the shape of our lives in ways we couldn’t have otherwise imagined.

Innovative businesses and communities cultivate an environment where making mistakes is not only acceptable but recognized as a valuable part of the innovation process. Mistakes only become failure when they are not learned from.

We wouldn’t be who we are today without our failure experiences. They help define us; sometimes they show us exactly what we’re made of. Bottom line is, we make the best decisions we can, with the knowledge, resources and awareness we have available to us at the time. It’s easy to see, with 20/20 hindsight, we should have done something different. The question now becomes what to do with the 20/20 hindsight to change patterns or increase your knowledge going forward so that “failure” becomes the wisdom from which you grow, innovation emerges and  success is created.

The best thing we could do for youth leaders is create environments where we grow our risk and failure muscles knowing that this is actually a route to success – sometimes beyond measure – one of the many topics we may end up exploring during the Art of Collaborative Leadership from March 16-18, 2011.

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