The world recently witnessed the Antares rocket shuttle lift off and, within a few seconds, explode and crash back into Virginia in a fiery blaze. Like many, we immediately likened the incident to the 1986 Challenger tragedy, and even questioned if history had just repeated itself. Did NASA not learn its lesson from almost 30 years ago?
It would have been easy to speculate how probably the same decision biases back then could have led to this disaster today. Given DSI’s experience in teaching about the Challenger case as it relates to leadership, our knee jerk reaction was to reinforce the lessons learned from that experience. However, one surprise that stood out from this recent incident was an interview with Jim Oberg, a NBC News space analyst and former NASA mission control operator, on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. So, instead of focusing on the past, we thought we’d focus on a great example of how to launch from failure. From his brief interview, Oberg surfaces four key behaviors we can all learn from when it comes to experiencing failure:
By quickly jumping to conclusions or conjecture, we open ourselves to blind spots. We potentially could dismiss factors that contributed to the situation or simply see what we want to see. We seek data that confirms our hypothesis and potentially give certain information more weight than others. To prevent such bias from influencing our interpretation of data, we should slow down before offering answers and focus first on gathering the facts.
Often, we go about our post-project debriefs merely discussing what we felt went well and what did not. We quickly offer reasons and rationale why we failed or did not meet expectations. However, most of those conclusions are conjecture and based off what we think the causes were versus what actually produced the outcome. What we learn from this example is that to truly understand why failure occurred, and how best to learn from the experience, we need objective and as complete information as we can collect.
Similarly, we should debrief right away after a project or initiative fails (or succeeds). Information and experiences are fresher, allowing for more objective perspectives as well as the opportunity to gather the most amount of data. Organizations and leaders can also apply any learning sooner to improve the next decision or help someone else to not repeat the same mistake. When it comes to failure, it doesn’t benefit to hold off on learning from it.
Even though we don’t want to fail, we know the future is too unpredictable to avoid failure completely. To mitigate that risk, organizations need to account for scenarios if failure in fact occurs. A major part of this involves having multiple options, which allows for flexibility and shifts.
Of course, no organization or person endeavors to fail. However, some situations are out of our control; failure is bound to happen. We can’t predict if an initiative will succeed or fail. However we can increase the chances of success through a disciplined decision-making process. As it relates to this article, we can also choose how we fail through a disciplined learning process as a strategic leader. An organization that doesn’t embrace failure won’t be able to learn from it and adapt to our volatile and dynamic future environment. Learning is a crucial element for success. As Jack Welch says, “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”