Suppose you’re a parent or have ever come into close contact with a tiny human. In that case, you instinctively know they learn by failing and trying again. You know that every fall must be answered with a motivating “try again” or even a more specific “you can do it! Keep trying, and you’ll learn”.
Children fail; we tell them to shake it off, learn, and try again. They try again and fail; we ask them to keep trying until they can do whatever they’re learning to do.
They grow a little more and get to life’s Whys. Suddenly, their learning depends on what we offer up as an answer. It can be a little bit scary (if you’re doing it right) and very frustrating (if you’re not up for the challenge). Toddlers and young children relentlessly search for life’s whys, and they won’t give up until you have no more “becauses” to give.
If you take yourself back to when you were a child, asking why was how you filled in blank spaces and quenched curiosity. It was also a cheat’s way to be a bit cheeky. The answers you were given would satisfy your interest or need for knowledge. Still, they could also heighten that need and lead the asking of more whys. That process, the whys all lined up in a row and waiting for answers, is like a set of dominos: the first one tips over onto another until there are no more dominos left to fall – no more whys left to answer.
And that is the pillar on which failure management should be built – the Why? Tiny humans, toddlers, and children have and live by the right idea. Do you?
Before we get into this, let’s first clear up some possible confusion about what failing means. Answer this question quickly: What’s the opposite of failure? If you replied success, here’s some bad news: it’s not. You can be successful or unsuccessful. These are opposites. You cannot have success without failure, but you can have failure without success. The hope-filled premise that if you fail enough, you’ll be rewarded with success is false. Sometimes things fail, and they do so through no fault of our own. Other times, things fail, and we don’t even catch on when they do. So, if success isn’t the opposite of failure, what is?
Losing isn’t failing. Winning isn’t a success, but it might be an achievement. Losing and winning are terms reserved for competitions
The following definition of failure can shine some light on the issue: Failure is a source of information. Toddlers know this. They fail at something, learn what went wrong, fix it and try again. Failing has given them direct insight into what they need to do to avoid it happening again.
But there’s more to this definition than meets the eye. Goals. Objectives. Something to strive for. Without these, there is no failure. These are necessary to guide you to know where you are. A lack of goals or objectives is like a ship lost at sea. It doesn’t matter where you go if you don’t know which way to go or where you’re going. Established, defined goals and objectives tell us if we are failing. If you achieve a goal or dream, you’re not failing. If you strive for an objective and achieve it, you’re not failing. If you have defined a plan and do what you need to do to achieve it, you’re not failing.
The opposite of failing is achieving. You can only achieve something when you know precisely what it represents. Conversely, you have failed if you have established your desired achievement and don’t attain it. But isn’t that the same as being unsuccessful? No, it isn’t. Success and its opposite can happen with absolutely no defined goal. You might have a desire, a wish, or even a dream to follow through on. You might even succeed in doing so, but unless those translate to goals, it won’t be an achievement or failure in the true sense of each word.
We must separate these waters to look at failure for what it really is: a source of information. Failing will tell you everything you need to know about what went wrong, how it went wrong, and, more importantly, why it went wrong.
Before we move on, let’s clear up yet another misconception about failure: losing. Losing isn’t failing. Winning isn’t a success, but it might be an achievement. Losing and winning are terms reserved for competitions, and they have very little to do with what we’re all trying to do in our lives. Life is not a competition, a game, or a race. You can’t win or lose at it.
We should all stop using the term ‘loser’ for someone who has failed because it’s as toxic as saying that someone who wins is successful. This is not necessarily true, making everything all the more confusing.
Let’s go on to the Whys of failure and why they’re so relevant. Imagine you have established a goal for someone, yourself, a team, or even a whole business. You have defined that goal and ensured those working to achieve it have the necessary means. You have also assured them they have a suitable timeframe and know precisely what the final result should look like. However, disaster strikes, and the goal isn’t achieved. Something failed along the way. But what? You had everything clearly defined. This is when you start asking why.
But be aware: this Why? The recipe comes with a warning label: if done right, it will hurt.
To find the real cause, you must ask why at every attempt to justify or answer the infamous “How did this happen?!”. You keep asking why – and replying truthfully, with an open heart and mind – until there are no more becauses to give. Why was the sales goal not achieved? Because X. Why did X happen? Because Y. Why did Y happen? Because Z. Why did Z happen? Because Z. Oh. So Z is the core failure factor in not achieving the goal. That’s what you have to focus on now. What is Z? How does it work? Why is it so impactful? What does it mean? How can we fix it? Does it touch on other goals? You look at Z and try to understand everything about it. Understanding it will show you how to avoid its influence and abolish it as a future failure factor.
But be aware: this Why? The recipe comes with a warning label: if done right, it will hurt. It could open eyes previously shut to specific realities and show you a side of what you’re doing that you probably didn’t know existed. The reality check can be devastating. You might realize your team doesn’t have the proper training or that their equipment needs upgrading. You might see that team motivation is down and that the effort required to achieve the goal just doesn’t exist. You might learn that a competitor has changed the playing field, making you play catch-up. Or, you might even realize that the goal wasn’t that important and that what it brings is far from what you hoped for.
What then? You get back up, and you try again. You keep trying. The whys will lead you to how to prevent those failure points from happening again.
Why? Because they identify precisely what failed and how to prevent it from happening again. Just like a toddler learning to ride a bike and adjusting their balance.
For extra Why? credits, do this for achieved goals as well. You might receive a surprise and realize what you thought was positive; productive factors may not have that much say. Asking Why? It will always bring you something new to try and learn. Blanks will be filled, curiosity will be satisfied, and you can even be cheeky. It might hurt, but it’ll make you grow – just like a tiny human taking their first steps and asking their first Whys.
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