How to Use Failure as Feedback

Dec 15, 2016 10:30 AM by Aileron

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Wes Gipe, Founder of Agil IT, knows that rather than get upset or frustrated when failure occurs, it’s a chance to step back and get curious. In the video shown here, he tells the story of one of the first times he applied this way of thinking while at the company he founded.

It was right after the company lost an important contract: “The failure wasn’t the loss of the contract, much in the same way in a soccer game, the goalie doesn’t give up the goal. That ball should have never down there in the first place. So that’s a team effort: the team wins and loses together. We started with that analogy, and we just began to unpack this failure and understand, in greater detail, all the missed opportunities that led up to us losing this contract.” 

Approach Failure as Feedback 

Failure typically evokes a lot of negative connotation, but it doesn’t have to. “It’s more about feedback,” says Mark Thompson, an Aileron Business Advisor and former CEO of a mid-sized professional services firm. Any time there is a situation where we didn’t get the outcome we expected to get, we have a chance at figuring out valuable information so we can improve, optimize or even master a similar situation in the future.

“It can be incredibly valuable if I choose to frame it that way—that failure provides us with feedback. I'm not talking about semantics to let a leader off the hook, or to make a leader or team unaccountable. I'm talking about a direct application of getting to a state where you are getting curious.” As Wes suggests, there is opportunity for any team when they start asking “why?” in order to break apart the failure.

Using curiosity can help an entire team define a problem, add critical context, and determine the cause of a problem more clearly.

Focus on the Knowledge Gained—Not the Emotion

“When an outcome I predicted does not occur, I can choose emotionally to process it as a failure,” explains Mark. “Thinking and feeling in terms of failure isn't very helpful because it lowers the leader’s energy, and it lowers the team's energy.” When a leader responds with emotion, it hinders his ability to be open and curious. That can hurt a team’s chances of uncovering the underlying cause or the other effects of that situation.

Another mistake can be the burden executives tend to take on with failure. Mark explains, “When the team has success, most leaders that I know give the team credit for the success. However, many of those same leaders tend to take failures personally upon themselves. While this comes from a good place of reasonability, it can discourage the team from experimenting because the leader is modeling that “failure” is to be taken personally.”

It is more constructive for the leader to simply focus on the systemic cause of the problem.

Embrace Low-Risk Experimentation

Mark says that he is not advocating for a lack of accountability when it comes to mistakes and responding to failure. Instead, he explains, “I’m advocating for a context of experimentation.” As a leader, avoid labeling any unexpected outcome as a failure. It’s about seeing the process that created the unexpected outcome and then experimenting towards a more desirable outcome.

One technique is to break down a situation into a series of smaller, low-risk experiments. “Instead of processing the outcomes of those experiments as success or failure, which sounds pretty absolute, entrepreneurs allow themselves, and the team, to wrestle with ambiguity. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, they are able to do this while on the journey to clarity. “Low-risk” matters because any experiment will take time and money – both of which we never have enough of.” 

You get to clarity by applying the feedback from these series of experiments. 

Use Experimentation to Reduce Risk 

There may be the need to examine and unpack something that happened in the past, such as with Wes’ story, and other times, we’re planning for the next best version. “Part of the art of entrepreneurship is in designing low-risk experiments that give us feedback about how target clients actually behave,” says Mark.

How a customer actually behaves is most important; customers will often think and tell us that they will behave differently than how they actually behave. 

Approach experiments as a way to find out the “why” behind behavior. “Whatever your business may be, the actual behavior of your client, versus how they say they would behave, is golden.

Whatever experimentation methods used, invest time in unpacking what you discover. “Now we can begin investing in a certain course of action because we've observed client behavior. We observed where clients perceive value, and we’ve been brought to that discovery by their behavior, and not just their words.” 

Continuous Learning & Continuous Improvement 

As a leader, you are responsible for setting your organization’s vision, leading strategy, being the change agent and promoting continuous learning across your company. Aileron’s Course for Presidents can help you transition out of the day-to-day so that you can focus on the future of your business. Let us show you what more than 1,000 small business owners have learned using our proven process to grow your business.

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About Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson joined Aileron in August of 2013 as a Business Advisor with the purpose of assisting presidents and business owners who are committed to establishing stronger professional management processes within their organizations. Mark's fourteen years as a CEO of a mid-sized professional services firm prepared helped to prepare him for the opportunity to guide clients through strategic planning and organizational and leadership development. 

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

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