How failure can be a great teacher

I read an interesting article in the Times about the importance of failure in ultimately achieving success, written by former England cricket player Mike Atherton. He says "Failure is all around, everywhere you look. There is no getting away from the awful stench of failure. Without it, there can be no success and no glory."

Atherton's words struck a chord with me, as I believe what he says is true not just in sport, but also in business and and life in general. 

[This is a bit of a touchy-feely post, so feel free to skip it. Normal brand-led business blogging will resume in the next post!]

Here are some thoughts on how to harness failure as a force for good.

1. Capture the learning

Failing per se is not great of course. The important thing is to learn from it. When I look back at my own career, I have learnt a lot from from failure. Before university I worked as an apprentice engineer in a factory with 30 other students. I was truly rubbish at the practical tasks. However, this forced me to successfully focus on the commercial aspects of the end of term project. It was my first taste of sales and marketing and gave me the impulse to explore and then pursue this as a career.

In the Times article, writer Anne Enright explains how she has "Resigned herself long ago to the cycle of trying, failing, dusting herself off and trying again."

2. Channel the energy

Atherton wrote about the English rugby team's recent victory over Wales. A year ago England suffered a humiliating defeat to same team, being beaten 30-3. The team were able to channel the anger and frustration of this defeat to help them win. England's captain, Chris Robshaw, said “We were embarrassed last year, there’s no hiding from that fact. It was a big defeat.” Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, said that England had 'learnt the harsh lessons from last year'."

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3. "Perfectionism is the enemy of achievement”

These are the words of Heather Hanbury, the head teacher of Wimbledon High School where one of my daughters go, in a BBC Radio 4 programme called The Value of Failure. Her view is that "a crippling fear of not succeeding" can limit pupils’ opportunities to learn, narrowing the range of activities they try. She goes as far as having a “failure week”, where students and teachers discuss how they have taken positive lessons from failure.

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In business, its sometimes better to implement an 80% solution quickly, so you can learn from experience, rather than agonising for weeks or months trying to get it perfect. 

The caveat here is that 80% is not always best of course. I like my aircraft maintenance to be pretty perfect, for example.

4. Fail safely

Air Vice-Marshal Sean Beck talked about how failing safely in drills and simulators was essential to saving lives in war, in the same Radio 4 programme I mentioned earlier. The same principle applies in business. Training can help equip you with new skills. And small scale test markets can help get real-world learning on new products and service. This is very much how online businesses work, trying out different versions of a new product and testing which works best.

In conclusion, none of us like to fail. But if can be a great teacher if you use it in the right way.