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Wed 4 Jun 2014 09:09 AM

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How to learn from failure

If your start-up plans have fallen flat, don’t think of it as the end of the road. Turn your failure into a success

How to learn from failure

Entrepreneurs are increasingly speaking out about their internal struggles, stress and the fact that they experience more anxiety than employees – often due to the looming shadow that the prospect of ‘failure’ can create.

However, on an entrepreneurial journey, while failure is sometimes bad, it is more often a force for good.

The good and the bad

Experiencing failure can cause a crisis of confidence among those who don’t reflect properly on what worked and what didn’t.

Speaking to Harvard Business Review, Amy C Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management and co-head of the technology and operations management unit at Harvard Business School, said: “The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyse failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated.”

Psychological research suggests that strong emotions often prompt people to blame others or external events rather than themselves so that they can maintain some semblance of self-esteem and a sense of control.

Edmondson further points out how leaders can begin by understanding how the blame game gets in the way: “When I ask executives to estimate how many of the failures in their organisations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits — perhaps two to five percent.

“But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70 percent to 90 percent. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.”

A sophisticated understanding of failures’ causes and contexts can help avoid the blame game and allow organisations to shift to a culture of psychological safety in which the rewards of learning from failure can be fully realised.

Furthermore, many entrepreneurs have suffered flops, but managed to learn from their setbacks, making the experience a positive one.

Michael Litt, co-founder of Vidyard – a success story of Silicon Valley incubator Y-Combinator – started his TEDx Talk by stating that there are 543,000,000 data points on the internet about failure.

The figure highlights how much people worry about it, but Litt made the case that a failure provides the ultimate experience needed for success — learning to get up and dust yourself off after a fall.

Similarly, Barbara Corcoran, an American businesswoman, investor, and television personality, told Inc. Magazine: “I learnt that in my business, the reason that I succeed is because I am so good at failure.”

Benefit rather than bleakness

Failure gives an incredible opportunity to re-evaluate the way you conduct your business.

The first things you can look at are planning preparation.

“Why do so many businesses fail?” asks Anthony Robbins, an American life coach and motivational speaker, in one of his lectures on business mastery available online.

“They fail because they fail to anticipate what’s coming. Anticipation is an ultimate power.

“If you are not anticipating, you’ll have to react – reacting is a sign that you’ve lost control. When you anticipate, you take control,” he adds.

Another aspect to consider is your execution. What went wrong the first time round? How can you do it better? Learning from your own bad practices can give you clarity on what to avoid. An honest assessment of your own performance, effort, skill and decision-making might not be a pleasant exercise, but it’s a vital one if you are to learn from your failure.

Through all of the post-failure debriefings, keep in mind that you are not the first, and won’t be the last to go through the process.

High profile names including Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs had their fair share of flops and mistakes during their illustrious careers – careers that wouldn’t have been so successful had they not worked hard to isolate the causes of their mistakes, allowing them to overcome their hurdles.

In their cases, and potentially yours as well, failure is also a driving force which hones definitions and visions of success.

Indeed, as Napoleon Hill – doyen of personal-success literature – said: “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

Just be sure to take the lessons that so-called ‘failures’ present.

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