Success is – well, success – and it’s easy to take for granted. But a spectacular failure, when handled correctly, can be a teaching tool that resonates for a long time. Obviously we’re not suggesting that companies seek out epic fails (as the kids call them). Rather, we’re suggesting a cultural shift that can pay off in increased employee loyalty, camaraderie and dedication.
A Science Daily story recently focused on how organizations that fail spectacularly often flourish more in the long run. The article cited a study by Vinit Desai, assistant professor of management at the University of Colorado Denver Business School, which focused on companies and organizations that launch satellites, rockets and shuttles into space — an arena where failures are high-profile and tough to hide. The study team found that knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge from failure stuck around for years.
The researchers noted that many organizations tend to ignore failure or fire people while they should be treating the failure as a learning opportunity. Desai compared the flights of the space shuttles Atlantis and Challenger. During the 2002 Atlantis flight, a piece of insulation broke off and damaged the left solid rocket booster but did not impede the mission. Little follow-up or investigation took place.
The Challenger was launched next and another piece of insulation broke off. This time the shuttle and its seven-person crew were tragically destroyed. The disaster prompted the suspension of shuttle flights and led to a major investigation resulting in 29 recommended changes. The difference in response in the two cases, Desai said, came down to this: The Atlantis was considered a success and the Challenger a failure.
We’ve found that the principles of learning from mistakes can also extend beyond large scale organizational shifts to include better management techniques at the micro level. Managers and directors frequently punish mistakes by reprimanding those employees responsible. Obviously, this might be necessary in some cases, but it’s often more effective and productive to treat the situation as a learning opportunity. Not only does this help reinforce the needed steps to successfully complete a task, it also builds employee camaraderie and dedication. When consistently applied, this technique may even encourage employees to proactively assist each other to produce better outcomes without manager intervention.
When failure strikes – and it will – don’t stigmatize the people involved, but rather encourage the sharing of ideas to understand the causes and learn from them. In doing so, you’ll establish a long-term recipe for success.