Optimising Learning from Failures

Meenakshi Kapur

Meenakshi Kapur

A consultant at Vyaktitva, enjoys to works with people and organizations to bring about an impact through facilitation and OD. She also spends her time with cats and dogs who naturally find their way to her. Maybe it is her deep love for music, that makes her who she is?

“Failure is success if we learn from it.” – Malcolm Forbes

We are operating in a world today which is dynamic, and continuously changing at an unprecedented pace. Information is in abundance, yet knowledge is becoming obsolete very rapidly. As a result of this, failure or becoming irrelevant seems to be more of a possibility now than it ever has been in the past. In this lies a great opportunity: turning failure experiences into your biggest asset. However, it is easier said than done.

I was challenged by this reality which compelled me to explore the various ways in which I can optimise my learnings from my experiences and stay relevant in today’s day and age. My exploration started with the self and I started assessing my current i.e. ‘As-Is‘ state. This brought about another dimension that my ‘As-Is‘ state was like shifting sand. I realised that I do not have a steady ‘As-Is‘ state as I have also been trying to adjust unconsciously to these changes outside. So, I thought of picking up something more grounded. The method I decided was to dig into the past to initiate this enquiry. I picked up some instances from my past work life where I did extremely well and also some instances where I failed.

Here I am going to share with you my discovery and some lessons that were brought out for me through this enquiry.

This instance goes back to my early days in the consulting space. I was dealing with a multinational client and was to do an intervention for their mid management. During the course of the intervention, I felt that things were not landing well. The expectation from the program was not exactly as it seemed earlier. The original need was of individual leadership development and during the course of the intervention it turned out that it is about having authentic conversations with each other. With some help and some tweaks to the program, I managed to close it with average results as per me and satisfactory results as per the client. Since for me it was less than satisfactory, I started the interesting task of reflection around it.

In the beginning I experienced various feelings like blame, disappointment, sadness, dissatisfaction etc. This happened for a couple of days. After some time it struck me that if I must learn something from this experience, I will have to go past the emotions and evaluate the experience as it was i.e. objectively without any colour of emotions. Once I became aware that my emotions were the barriers to my learning, I became neutral about it and opened my heart to acceptance. And magic happened after that. I figured that I had taken some hypothesis in the beginning which I did not validate as part of my analysis. Not only did I figure out what I could have done better but also things that were obvious but I could not see it earlier due to the veil of emotions. So, in reality, it was ‘I’ who was preventing any learning from happening and not the failure event.

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So, my first learning was exactly this.

To learn from any experience, I need to neutralise my feelings and evaluate the experience objectively. And if I were to say bluntly – I need to get out of the way to be able to see myself 🙂

This is true for both kinds of experiences, happy ones and not so happy ones.

Further on, while reflecting, I seemed to be in a hurry to get something out so that I don’t have to face the same issue over again. I wanted to cement or encode the learnings that I would get from my reflection. The first few attempts at reflection took me to some depth. However, the findings did not seem to apply in many other situations. Hence, the learning was not getting embedded and therefore not replicable for me. So, I decided to stay with it for some more time and kept re- examining it deeply to find a principle that I could apply. I found that during the design stage, I had taken help from someone. Because of this, I somehow had not owned the design fully and had not internalised it. This led me to another insight which became my second learning:

To encode an experience, I need to first decode it fully and then encode it using ‘my’ cipher.

This became a mantra for me. Not just for failures but I started using it for positive experiences as well. Sometimes things just happen, and we do not know what we really or exactly did well to get those results. However, if we want to apply the learnings consciously from that experience, it is important to first decode it. The ‘Why’ questions became my support here and helped me go downs this route. Continued reflection and staying with the questions helped me decode the experience fully. After decoding and encoding, I started applying it to see if it worked. Once I started using it consciously, the learning got cemented in my memory. This made it possible for me to utilize the learnings and replicate to other situations as and when needed and now even effortlessly.

With the above, I started consolidating my learning. While I was doing it, a very compelling thought occurred to me and stayed with me. The thought was – had I not failed, I would have never had these insights and would have continued in unawareness. Failure brought out some key lessons for me and yet I dread failure. This was a dichotomy – I wanted learning and I wanted to avoid failures-so how would I continue learning if I kept resisting failures. In reality, failure now seemed like a boon. As soon as this realization dawned on me, it changed my lens towards failures, risk taking and learning. And that was my next learning:

Use the lens of learning under all circumstances. Be alive to every opportunity of learning, especially failures.

Now the other big question that remained was – this failure revealed to me some life changing lessons yet failure is still such a big discomfort for everyone, in personal spaces and in organizations. So, how do we approach failures in itself so that the burden is taken away and we look at it with hope? How do we transcend from criticizing failures to celebrating it and thereby building a culture of ‘it is okay to fail’ in organizations?

Those are some thoughts for my next enquiry. And till then I am going to continue practice to fail! 

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