Learning From Failure

Learning from failure is hard for business leaders, but it is essential for success. So, go forth and fail fabulously!

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Every successful entrepreneur or CEO has dealt with failure at some point. It took Thomas Edison 10,000 attempts to perfect the light bulb, 36 publishers rejected Arianna Huffington and Milton Hershey had three candy-related ventures fail before he founded Hershey's.

Whether you're running a small startup or a Fortune 500 corporation, shifting your thinking to learn from failure is one of the hardest lessons for most business leaders but also one of the most essential for future success.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, "A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor."

Learning from failure is a crucial skill that can lead to personal growth, resilience and improved decision-making. Here's some advice for someone who wants to learn from failure:

  1. Shift Your Perspective: View failure as a learning opportunity rather than a defeat. If perfection is the standard, you're creating an unhealthy work environment where fear of failure will hamper you and your employees' ability to be creative and find innovative solutions. Instead, embrace a growth mindset, understanding that failures are stepping stones toward improvement and success.
  2. Avoid Attributing Blame: When facing failure, avoid blaming yourself or others. Instead, objectively analyze the situation to understand what went wrong and why. Go beyond surface-level reasons for failure. Dig deep, conduct a postmortem to uncover the underlying factors contributing to the outcome and examine your assumptions, strategies, communication and execution. Look at failure as a chance to identify factors you can control and improve to mitigate the same mistakes from happening again.
  3. Feedback: Although it might be challenging, embracing honest feedback about your and your company's failures can provide valuable sources of information and learning opportunities you might have yet to notice on your own. This can help you assess your progress, challenge your biases, improve your products and services and learn things. In fact, a global survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that what set top-performing companies apart was the use of feedback loops, stating that effective feedback brings speed to delivering strategy.
  4. Document Lessons: Successful business leaders and businesses perform trials and embrace errors. You can only get better at something by practicing and learning from your mistakes. So, write down what you've learned from the failure. Create a document or journal where you record the details of the defeat, the analysis and the lessons you've gained. This helps solidify your insights and prevents repeating the same mistakes.
  5. Adapt and Pivot: Accept that failures will happen in business and adapt your approach to the lessons learned from loss. Adjusting your approach when a failure occurs is critical to fostering long-term resiliency for your business. Apply the insights gained from failures to pivot and refine your strategies, adjust your goals and develop new approaches to make better decisions moving forward.
  6. Celebrate: Acknowledge your progress, even if it's small. Every step toward improvement counts, and recognizing your efforts can boost your motivation to keep learning. Taking pride in your achievements allows you to pinpoint precisely what you've successfully done so that you can repeat it in the future. So, the next time you successfully handle a challenging situation or a task that you've struggled with, take the time to acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments with your peers. It'll encourage them to do the same.
  7. Set Realistic Expectations: When setting expectations, specificy your businesses and personal goals. Then, break down the most significant goals into more manageable expectations and understand that setbacks don't define your worth or abilities. For example, let's say you want your company's EBITA to increase by 10% by the end of the year. In that case, focus on a 2.5% EBITA increase per quarter and continuously reevaluate your expectations to ensure you have the staff, time and financial capabilities to realistically achieve your goals.
  8. Practice Iteration: Approach your goals with an iterative mindset of continuous learning, progression, feedback and improvement. As you implement changes based on what you've learned from experiences, constantly monitor your progress, assess outcomes and refine your strategies as needed. For instance, if you're releasing an insurtech product, you'll need to continuously experiment with it, get feedback about its weaknesses and keep tabs on disruptive industry trends so you can make adjustments and deliver a game-changing product.
  9. Stay Persistent: Failure is inevitable. In fact, 90% of startups fail. It's not a question of if you'll fail but rather when. Failure can be discouraging, but remember that success often involves persistence. Use your newfound knowledge to keep moving forward, even in the face of challenges.

See also: NFIP's Failure Fuels New Risks

Even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that his company's growth and innovation are built on its failures: "If you're going to take bold bets, they're going to be experiments. And if they're experiments, you don't know ahead of time if they're going to work. Experiments are, by their very nature, prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn't work."

Don't be afraid to share your failure stories with others. Sharing your experiences can help others learn from your mistakes and create a supportive community that values growth and learning. Be patient with yourself and focus on the journey of continuous improvement rather than perfection. Learning from failure doesn't mean dwelling on the negatives. It's about finding humor and growth in the most unexpected places.

So, go forth, fail fabulously, and remember the best view comes after the hardest climb!


Michael de Waal

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Michael de Waal

Mike de Waal is president and founder of Global IQX, a leading software provider of web-based sales and service solutions to employee benefits insurers.

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