Understanding The Value Of Failure: Two Key Tools

Written by: Shontarius D. Aikens

There’s a wide breadth of information out there in academic literature about running a company. That’s why we wanted to provide academic answers to real life business questions so we turned to  Shontarius D. Aikens, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management at Offutt School of Business at Concordia College, to give us some academic insight.

During this summer, I’ve been doing a lot of cleaning at my home and in my storage areas. To be honest, I dread the process and the time required to go through storage containers and boxes, but I understand that it is important to do this periodically. On one particular day, I came across documents and items from past business ventures that I started back in my late 20s/early 30s. There were definite moments of nostalgia along with several moments when I said to myself: “What in the world were you thinking?”  This rhetorical question was definitely directed to my involvement in those past business ventures that were not as successful as I had hoped they would be.

As an educator, I strive to be as real and as transparent with my students as possible in order to create an authentic positive learning environment. For example, on the first day of my entrepreneurship course, I share with my students about previous business ventures I started in the past. I discuss the how and why of my involvement along with whether or not it turned out the way I envisioned. I share the good stuff as well as the bad stuff.  I think it is extremely important for entrepreneurship students (and in fact all students) to understand that even the most well-intended and carefully thought out plans can sometimes fail. This applies to not just entrepreneurship, but also to life in general. And, I also want them to know that early failure can be a huge positive that leads to greater success in the future. As I tell my students, some of the greatest personal and professional successes in my life now are a direct result of hard lessons of failure when I was younger.  

Self-reflection is so important and critical for growth that I am always on the lookout for various activities and tools that can help individuals learn and get insight from past experiences. When it comes to learning from failure, I found two tools that have been developed to help in this process. These tools presented below are used in academic classrooms, and I believe that they can be utilized by organizations and managers in the workplace.

Tool #1:  The Failure Resume

All of us have created a resume to highlight our successes and experiences in hopes of getting a job. But have we ever thought about developing a resume to highlight our failures? Tina Seelig created The Failure Resume activity as an assignment for her students. This requires making a list of failures (personal, professional, and academic) and then writing a reflection on what was learned from each item. In addition, it requires the participant to complete a risk profile. Out of the various types of risks (physical, social, emotional, financial, intellectual, ethical), participants get an understanding of the types of risks they normally embrace versus the types of risks that they tend to avoid. To learn more about this activity, read Seelig’s article titled The Secret Sauce of Silicon Valley.  

Tool #2:  The Failure Spectrum

In the article Strategies for Learning from Failure, it is suggested that failures are not all the same.  Some are preventable, some are complex, and others are intelligent. While some failures do deserve blame, others deserve praise.  To illustrate this, Amy C. Edmondson created The Failure Spectrum which is a visual continuum that can be used to describe and categorize failures. The nine different types along with Edmondson’s definitions are listed below:

  • Deviance“An individual chooses to violate a prescribed process or practice.”
  • Inattention“An individual inadvertently deviates from specifications.”
  • Lack of Ability“An individual doesn’t have the skills, conditions, or training to execute a job.”
  • Process Inadequacy“A competent individual adheres to a prescribed but faulty or incomplete process.”
  • Task Challenge“An individual faces a task too difficult to be executed reliably every time.”
  • Process Complexity“A process composed of many elements breaks down when it encounters novel interactions.”
  • Uncertainty“A lack of clarity about future events causes people to take seemingly reasonable actions that produce undesired results.”
  • Hypothesis Testing“An experiment conducted to prove that an idea or a design will succeed fails.”
  • Exploratory Testing“An experiment conducted to expand knowledge and investigate a possibility leads to an undesired result.”

I utilize The Failure Spectrum in my entrepreneurship classes as a self-reflection tool which helps students to evaluate if past undesirable outcomes were due to human errors or shortcomings (e.g. Lack of Ability, Process Inadequacy) or just a natural part of taking calculated risks (e.g. Hypothesis Testing, Exploratory Testing).

In Closing

The value in both of these tools is that it enables lessons learned from past mistakes to be documented which can help individuals and organizations to improve in the future. While these tools are specifically geared toward entrepreneurial ventures and startups, I believe these tools have general applicability and benefits. First, they could be used as a starting point for introspection and self-reflection that could be used in executive coaching sessions. Second, it helps managers and organizations to take proper ownership of past mistakes that could have been avoided and to let go of those mistakes that were out of the manager’s or organization’s control. Third, encouraging open discussions about failures and documenting lessons learned can help organizations cultivate a culture of learning and development.

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