Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Learning From Your Mistakes – 4 Steps To Turn Failure Into Success

As with most kids on summer break, my girls have been spending part of their days taking swimming lessons to help advance their skills in this particular sport. While attending one of their lessons, I noticed something that was reminiscent of what many companies go through when managing the growth of their organization.

For one of their lessons, my daughter’s swim teacher asked the students in her class to swim the length of the pool and then toss a ball into the basketball net. One by one, the kids took their turn swimming across the pool and attempting to varying degrees of success in getting the ball into the net.

When it was my daughter’s turn, she swam toward the basketball net and stopped to one side to take her shot. On her first try, she bounced the ball off the rim of the net. In her next shot, she tried to throw the ball with more force, which ended up sending the ball past the net and over to the other side. Although she tried and missed another two times to get that ball into the net, she never once showed any sign of wavering in trying to succeed, even though she was clearly having no luck with this exercise.

After her class, I applauded her for being so determined to get that ball in the net, but I also had a question for her – why didn’t she just swim to the front of the net where she could have had an easier time shooting the ball? As soon as I asked her this, she gave me this sheepish smile, now realizing how she had made the task harder for herself simply because of where she chose to take the shot.

Watching her single-minded focus in performing this task reminded me of how many organizations and their leaders can also get so fixated on taking one particular route to achieve a given objective, to the point that making a simple improvement like shifting their starting position becomes a challenging prospect. Of course, part of the problem is that there is such a great fear in attempting something different, out of concern that it might lead to failure, that many organizations have become rather risk-adverse, a sentiment that has been further exacerbated by today’s economic environment.

The reality, of course, is that failures – both small and significant ones – remain par for the course of doing business in today’s global economy, regardless of whether times are good or not. With that in mind, here are four steps that leaders can take to make sure their team is able to learn from these failures, while still keeping their eyes looking forward on reaching their objective.

1. Keep your team’s focus on the end goal and not on individual outcomes
As most of us know, it’s easy to become frustrated when we keep experiencing failures which prevent us from reaching our goals. Indeed, for most human endeavours, we view being successful as reaching a given target in as few attempts as possible, a big reason why those get-rich-quick schemes remain very popular despite common sense debunking the reality of their claims.

It’s also no doubt why the story of how many failures Thomas Edison endured before creating his light bulb prototype still stirs our collective imagination, as it’s hard to imagine that success could occur after hundreds of failed attempts. Of course, one thing that is clear about Edison’s story is that he was less concerned about individual outcomes as he was about reaching his goal of creating a longer-lasting light bulb.

So while leaders should encourage their team to achieve some quick wins to keep them motivated, it’s also critical that leaders direct their team to worry less about individual outcomes and get them to focus instead on reaching the desired goal behind their shared efforts.

2. Make time to review and assess what issues/obstacles arise from your team’s efforts
I’ve noticed that there’s been several articles written lately that speak of the importance of “failing fast” in the process of innovation and change. While there is some merit to this notion, the problem is that it’s too easy for leaders and organizations to focus on failing quickly than allowing their team to fail effectively. By this, I’m referring to giving your team time to reflect and review on why the desired outcome wasn’t reached, in order to understand why they encountered the roadblocks they did. By making time for such measures, your team can adjust their approach in order to resolve these issues while maintaining their sights on the end goal.

In the case of my daughter’s swimming lesson, she kept throwing the ball without evaluating why she was having such a hard time getting it in the net. While she changed certain variables like throwing the ball harder, this only resulted in the ball going further away from her target. Had she taken the time to examine the situation, she would’ve come to the same conclusion I had that she should shift her position to throw from the front and not from the side in order to succeed in getting the ball into the net.

3. Encourage a sense of determination within your team
It’s also important to remember that just because you’re “failing fast” doesn’t mean you’re going to reach your target faster. As such, a more important message for leaders to relay to their team is to encourage a sense of determination, which will help them to hang in there for the long haul and not give up so soon simply because those early failures are preventing them from reaching the desired outcome.

For some employees, this drive will be naturally present and they will be unwavering in their efforts despite whatever setbacks come their way. For others, these failures can be a source of frustration or discouragement, so be sure to make time to encourage these employees to ignore these setbacks and to keep at it, reminding them of the first point I wrote about, of focusing more on the end goal than on the individual outcomes.

4. Don’t worry about variables you can’t control
Whether it’s in the business arena or personal affairs, whenever we find ourselves facing obstacles that prevent us from reaching our goals, it’s a common response to start worrying mostly about those aspects behind our failure that we have no control over. Ironically, worrying about those variables that we have no control over is a self-protective response, something that basically steers us away from taking any steps to address those aspects behind our failure that we can do something about.

With today’s economic challenges, it’s easy for leaders and their organization to blame outside factors for the failures they are currently enduring. However, the reason why some companies are having an easier time treading water and in some cases thriving, is because they’ve chosen to ignore those variables they have no control over, focusing instead on those issues they can correct in order to resolve to some degree the failures they’ve encountered.

In a society that celebrates winners and winning outcomes, it’s only natural that businesses and their leaders want their teams to pull out more wins by avoiding risky approaches that can lead to failures. However, by recognizing not only the inevitability that mistakes will happen, but embracing how you can turn these failures to your advantage, leaders can help their team to gain insights they might not have otherwise obtained. Insights which can help your organization to not only face the challenges of today, but the opportunities that might be lying in wait in the years to come.

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  1. On July 19th, 2010 at 3:54 AM Richard A Marti Jr said:

    Thanks Tanveer. I would add that companies that hire an expert like yourself might make the learning curve a little shorter.

  2. On July 19th, 2010 at 4:45 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Richard; that's very kind of you to say. I appreciate the endorsement.

  3. On July 19th, 2010 at 4:46 AM Sally G.s said:

    Hi Tanveer! Great post, as always.

    In addition to being great corporate team steps ~ they're definitely cross-applicable to life situations too. I always enjoy the personal elements you add to your posts ~ hooray for your girls!!

  4. On July 19th, 2010 at 9:29 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Sally, I appreciate that. I agree with you that these steps can carry over into life situations as well.

    As I've written in various posts here on my blog, it's unrealistic to think that the person you are at work should be different from the person you are outside of work, especially if we want people to bring the best of their abilities and potential to their role. That's why I think many of the ideas I share here can be transposed to either side of the work/life equation as we're ultimately the same individual in these different settings.

    It's also why I enjoy adding these personal stories to my posts as it helps to illustrate this very notion, if not also for the fact that when my girls are older they'll be able to read these pieces and see how they helped to inspire their dad.

    Thanks again for the kind words, Sally.

  5. On July 20th, 2010 at 10:44 AM Kelly Ketelboeter said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    Some of the greatest lessons I have learned in my life have come from my failures. That is of course once I got over the initial disappointment and emotion.

    Reflecting on the situation, project, problem or whatever occurred is critical and leads to growth. One has to be willing and open to the lessons within the failures though. It's key to provide an environment free of blame or accusations. And to focus on the actual lesson within the failure. I have found there's almost always a lesson to be learned.

    I often think that if we spent more time celebrating failures as a natural part of life that the steps above would be a lot easier to put into action. Then we can begin to address and shift the stigma of failing.

    Great piece!


  6. On July 21st, 2010 at 9:20 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Kelly.

    It's interesting that you mention how we should spend more time celebrating failures as I was reading an article recently that pointed out how in the education system in several Asian countries, students are not only expected to fail, but they're actually encouraged to fail often. The rationale is that by allowing children to experience failure, they will learn how to deal with failure and how to take the lessons from the experience as they move forward.

    The problem I find in North America is that while we're now starting to accept failure as being a part of the process, I'm reading a lot about how we need to just deal with it and get on with it. In other words, all we're doing is basically addressing our fear of failure, but not how to learn from failure. Also, there's not enough being said about what kinds of failure would be beneficial and which ones should be avoided at all costs. That's why I find the whole "failing fast" notion a bit over-simplistic because we shouldn't be focusing on time as the quality of knowledge or insights we might gain from the experience.

    Thanks again, Kelly, for sharing your thoughts on this. I appreciate the contributions you add to the discussion.

  7. On July 23rd, 2010 at 5:26 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Good stuff Tanveer. Why are we so quick to categorize or place in buckets wins and loses (failures)? Why not one big bucket titled learning experiences, then we focus on the end goal and enjoy the journey to achievement.

  8. On July 23rd, 2010 at 7:35 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Exactly, Jim. It makes so much more sense to not focus so much on how we didn't reach our target this try, but instead look at what insights that failure helps to expose about our process. A real-world, practical example of this would be any sports team. When they play a game and lose, they don't just sit there sulking, they look at why they lost; why certain game strategies didn't work and how the opposing team was able to beat them. Take time to make such assessments will certainly help a team to understand not only where they are going wrong, but also how making certain changes can address these problems so the next time they go out onto the playing field, they have a better chance at winning the game.

    Thanks again Jim for your comment.

  9. On May 23rd, 2011 at 7:28 AM Melanie said:

    Nice post Tanveer. I love the tip "Don’t worry about variables you can’t control", sometimes we get a lot of stress by unnecessary things.

  10. On May 24th, 2011 at 9:41 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Melanie; I'm glad you enjoyed it and I agree, often times we create unnecessary stress for ourselves by worrying over issues that are outside our abilities to control/manage.

  11. On June 20th, 2011 at 12:50 AM Matthew said:

    Mistakes becomes our way to continue to reach our goals.. there is a saying
    "Experience is our best teacher".

  12. On June 20th, 2011 at 7:32 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Agreed. The key is learning to reframe how we perceive mistakes so that it becomes easier to dust ourselves off, assess where things went wrong and keep at it until we achieve our goal. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Matthew.

  13. On July 19th, 2011 at 8:15 PM Subhabb said:

    The story about your daughter's experience was a great hook for this post. I agree with what you shared and would add that creating an environment where people are encouraged to share successes and mistakes is important. To foster this, I try to be consistent about the way I respond to my team. If they know that regardless of the situation they can be assured of being treated respectfully, they will be more likely to make me aware of problems that should get on my radar. Leaders can also model the value they place in learning from mistakes by sharing their own experiences honestly. Thanks for your post!

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