Steven Paul is an executive leader and board director. He brings a fresh perspective to creating high-impact boards, building businesses, leadership and strategic alignment, transformation. His passion is to help companies achieve growth and develop authentic leaders.
As human beings we are naturally (and usually) programmed to evaluate and learn mostly from failure. Most executive leaders I’ve talked to spoke about the lessons that they personally had from failures. They also believed that learning from it was straightforward because one could reflect on what they did wrong in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
In a business or organizational setting, failure is sometimes inevitable. In my experience of working with diverse executive leaders and firms, learning from leadership or organizational failures is anything but straightforward. This is because there are multi-dimensional factors to be considered, such as the need for a broader shift in behaviors and attitudes to unlearn those elements that caused the failure.
Failure (and the review after) is not always bad. But what about reviewing success?
When we succeed, we usually just focus on applying what we already know or did to execute problems the same way. We don’t necessarily revise our theories and approaches or even expand our knowledge of how our business or organization works. Can you think of time for example, when you have implemented a recent project and achieved the metrics positively? You might have even done a lesson-learned and acknowledged the successful outcomes but rarely have probed further. Why?
The truth is that while a success (or a series of successes) may mean you’re on the right track, you as a leader or organization can’t assume this to be true without further experimentation, and reflection. Think of companies or leaders on a higher frequency or trajectory of success (which-ever way they define this); how they are positively building innovation for growth and higher potential across diverse business or personal dimensions. One of the things they do differently is to experiment. Jeff Bezos from Amazon in one of his earlier letters to shareholders said: “To invent you have to experiment.”
The pace of change over the last few decades is only set to accelerate in the coming years, especially with technology providing all the incredible potentials. But technology and internal behaviours are closely interconnected to each other. So, while technologies are adapting and developing incredibly fast, the ways in which we are reviewing and navigating failure and success in a robust manner is still a key imperative.
Progressive learning and experimentation are all about understanding why things happen and why some decisions lead to specific outcomes. This is not an automatic mental reflex, but when a conscious choice is made to challenge and revise your assumptions and models as a result of a failure and success, you view this as being on equal footing.
Incorporate the following 3 approaches to support a mindset of embracing (and reviewing) both failure and success in equal footing in order to position yourself for even higher potential outcomes.
1. Examine both success and failure: Investigate what led to successful outcome with the same rigor and scrutiny it might apply to understanding the causes of failure. Formulate debriefs with actionable recommendations and embed this.
2. Incentivize success: Involve the organization’s architectural processes and networks, including reward systems and incentives to create a culture that encourages experimental learning. This in turn helps to determine what is needed to achieve high levels of performance.
3. Future-ready leadership capabilities: Enable by creating leaders as explorers who discover opportunities; who are emotionally intelligent and powerful communicators who connect with many different types of people; who are lifelong learners – curious, active, and engaged.