The Benefits of Failure

Squirrel on a window ledge
Being human means you will make mistakes. And you will make mistakes because failure is God’s way of moving you in another direction. – Oprah Winfrey
There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting. – Buddha

We have an ongoing battle at our house between the humans and the squirrels. It all started with the gift of a glass bird feeder. We mounted it on our kitchen window so that we could watch the birds. Initially it worked flawlessly. We had close up views of Blue Jays, Cardinals, and Red-winged blackbirds as they swooped in, paused to grab a peanut, then swooped away. However, a clever squirrel soon discovered the bounty. He navigated an acrobatic route up to the feeder and quickly emptied out all the peanuts. We removed everything below the window and added plastic spikes on the ledge as a barrier, but the squirrel managed to quickly adapt and empty the feeder again, using the plastic spikes as hand-holds. In addition, he told his friends! Now we have a scurry of fat and happy squirrels, and we have to admire the birds from a distance. So far the squirrels are winning the battle, but the war wages on! In the meantime, our current loss to the squirrels made me reflect on failure in general…

People typically believe that failure is bad. Growing up you probably felt like admitting mistakes meant accepting blame. Even if your failure wasn’t based on a deliberate act, still you often got punished for it. In most workplaces, the approach is not all that different. People tend to try to cover up their failures if possible, which also means that any potential examination and learning from their mistakes is lost. No one likes failures, but setbacks are inevitable when you attempt to stretch your abilities and try new things.

An article in Harvard Business Review divides mistakes into three categories: preventable, complexity-related and intelligent. Preventable failures are those that can be improved with proper training and support. Small failures are difficult to prevent in complex systems, but they need to be identified and corrected to prevent them cascading into larger problems.

The Checklist Manifesto is available on Amazon.

Atul Gawande, a surgeon, suggests a brilliant and deceptively simple approach to identifying and correcting mistakes. Gawande illustrates how using checklists can have substantial benefits in environments such as in hospitals or other businesses. In one trial, introducing a checklist in Michigan hospitals decreased infections by two-thirds, saving both money and lives. A checklist used by John Hopkins required everyone to introduce themselves before starting surgery with a new team. This is based the observation that people who know one another’s names work more effectively together. After three months of using checklists, the ratings of well-coordinated teamwork rose from 68% to 92%. These initial successes led to his project with the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop a surgical checklist. It wasn’t easy, and required multiple revisions to improve its ease of use. In the end, the checklist took 2 minutes and had 19 steps to help prevent areas of critical failure in surgery. The results of an international trial in 8 hospitals showed major complications fell by over one-third and deaths fell by almost half. Similar benefits are seen when using checklists in the airline industry and in finance. In my work, I’ve used checklists (called heuristics) to analyze software ease of use, and also for evaluating real estate investments. They have definitely helped to make repeated tasks easier to do consistently well!

The final category of mistakes is intelligent failures – those that help you to gain knowledge. Research and development (R&D) relies on this type of trial and error to push the frontiers. One notable example is the invention of the Post-it note. A 3M scientist accidentally developed an adhesive that was only lightly sticky. Another employee had an idea about an application for this type of adhesive, and a very useful (and profitable) product was born! Think about how different the results would have been if the first scientist didn’t communicate this “failure” to others. It’s important to cultivate an attitude of learning from failure to succeed faster, especially with work that is non-routine. You shouldn’t view failures as final, or something of which to be ashamed. Failures are important milestones on the road to success; they are experiments that provide useful information that we can apply on our next attempt.

Recently I had the opportunity to listen to a successful local entrepreneur talk about her path to success. Katie McClelland is a strong, fit and confident woman in her forties, married with a young son. She runs two yoga studios with 120 staff and between 300-500 students attending classes each day. She has a TV show and online training classes. And in her twenties she was a homeless drug addict. Now she uses the lessons from that dark period to help others to be their best selves. She preaches self-love, rerouting your thoughts, and the ability to take small steps forward, even if you are not always sure of the final destination. If she can examine her mistakes in life and use these lessons, and her gifts, to become a successful businesswomen, then how can we not take up this challenge as well?

Are you willing to examine your mistakes more closely? How could you use checklists to prevent errors or help make complex tasks simpler? What lessons have learned from your mistakes in business or other aspects of life? Any ideas on what to do about our squirrel problem? We’re off to face the battle again and learning each step of the way!


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