Everyone strives for perfection, for most people failure is not an option. However, the reality is that failure is an unpleasant fact, each day, a person fails in his or her tasks, decisions and ideas and organizations fail in their strategies and policies. In this highly competitive and achievement oriented society, a failure in any aspect of a person’s life is construed negatively and stereotyped as a sign of weakness. Failures are indeed negative occurrences that involve the inability to carry out the desired objective or goal of the individual or organization (Cannon & Edmondson, 2005).
Failures can be either large scale or small scale, and it can have far-reaching effects than mere criticisms. Small-scale failures are normal consequences of the individual’s actions and decisions form day to day, for example, not being able to come to work on time is a failure on the part of the employee. Being tardy is a negative behavior and failing to be punctual can directly affect the work performance of the individual; however, such tardiness can also have dire effects on the organization.
Chronic tardiness results to missed hours of work per week and probably lesser output for the department or unit and the organization as a whole. Such a failure can be dissected and analyzed as a personal failure, but it has varied implications for the organization’s policies and performance. On the other hand, large-scale failures are highly sensationalized and have the potential to lessen the competitiveness and the trust that people have on their organizations (Nevis, DiBella & Gould, 1995). F
or example, Martha Stewart’s failure and fiasco in her business enterprise have led to criticisms and stigma and for that time, sales of Martha Stewart’s products were very low. Organizational failures are often not highlighted as a basis for learning; instead, it is covered-up and undisclosed to the public.
Learning from failure is not a popular concept in the American reality. Failures have a negative connotation and it is not a thing that is shared to most people. Likewise, organizations steer from the issue of failure and find immediate solutions to such failures and problems without considering the possible learning that the failure brings (Nevis, DiBella & Gould, 1995). For example, mass resignations of pilots in an airline company spell disaster, and the most likely action for the company is to reduce flights. Learning from failure dictates that the airline company should look into the reasons of the pilots for leaving the airline.
The result of the survey would be used as basis to institute changes in their policies in order to address the concerns of the pilots and to prevent mass resignations in the future. Organizations however, try very hard to keep their failures from becoming public since it would not be good for their business but making failures public communicates that the organization is willing to accept their mistakes and further commit to the improvement of their policies and procedures to prevent and minimize the occurrence of mistakes (Cannon & Edmondson, 2005).
Large-scale failures that reach the consciousness of the public become common knowledge and these are used as a learning tool for other individuals and organizations. The stock market scandals have resulted to clearer and stricter guidelines in the stock market. Thus, failures are not entirely negative; instead, it has the potential for driving new information and concepts and in the development of better policies and guidelines for all.
Learning is a process that occurs throughout life, and failures play an important role in facilitating learning. Without mistakes and failure, an individual would not be able to learn what is right and acceptable from what is wrong and unacceptable. Failure is as essential to life as learning; one cannot exist without the other.
Learning does not occur in a vacuum, it utilizes whatever information, and knowledge is on hand. However, the best kind of learning is said to come from failures and mistakes as it provides concrete basis for differentiating what is positive and good from what is negative and bad (Nevis, DiBella & Gould, 1995). At an individual level, workers sent on a training workshop to learn new skills in the operation of new equipments would only have a working knowledge of the new equipment.
Actual operation of the equipment would test the knowledge of the worker and the amount of learning that he has gained from the training workshop. A failure on the part of the worker would lead to the inefficient use of the equipment, and identifying one’s mistakes and source of failure would result to more learning. At this point the worker can now identify which of his actions had resulted to the mistake and which actions would control for the effects of the mistake and what behaviors he should do to prevent the mistake from recurring.
In terms of organizational learning, failures are also a rich source of information that could be used to improve and strengthen the strategies that they already have in place (Cannon & Edmondson, 2005). It is important for organizations to learn from their failures as it is a factual occurrence that reflect the true state of the organization (Carmeli & Sheaffer, 2008). For example, a miscommunication between departments can bring about significant problems and difficulties in the conduct of the organizations’ activities.
The most likely reaction is for the department heads and managers to resolve the problems brought about by miscommunication, but if the organization wants to apply the concept of learning from failures, they should b able to identify the source of the miscommunication and in what channels the miscommunication occurred, then the organization should look into the communication patterns of the organization and take the necessary steps to ensure that the communication systems would be corrected to prevent miscommunications in the future.
Even though learning from failures has been found to be a useful tool for increasing the efficiency of organizations and in cultivating a positive culture, one that is open to experimentation and failure, not many organizations have embraced the concept and continue to disregard the learning that could be had from failures (Nevis, DiBella & Gould, 1995). In a discussion of why organizations fail to learn from failures, it was pointed out that organizations fail to utilize failures as rich sources of information because of the lack of critical thinking skills that would identify failures as an opportunity for growth (Carmeli & Sheaffer, 2008).
Additionally, organizations does not take into account and monitor for failure, instead it is systematically removed and not dwelled upon. Another reason for not being able to learn from failures is the human tendency to reduce the effect or to cover-up the incidence of a failure. Even without undue pressure, individuals have the tendency to downplay failures and mistakes and for most to find excuses and blame the failure on the system, and other individuals (Carmeli & Sheaffer, 2008). It is important to recognize that failures present a learning opportunity for organizations and even for one’s personal life, and although it takes courage and a more open and willing perspective, it is not impossible to attain.
Cannon, M. & Edmondson, A. (2005). Failing to learn and learning to fail (intelligently): How organizations put failure to work to innovate and improve. Long Range Planning, 38, 299-319
Carmeli, A., & Sheaffer, Z. (2008). How learning leadership and organizational learning from failures enhance perceived organizational capacity to adapt to the task environment. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44:468.
Nevis, E. C., DiBella, A.J., & Gould, J.M. (1995). Understanding organizations as learning systems. Sloan Management Review, 36, 73-85.