In the first article in this article series, I presented the concept of black box thinking, which outlines the concept of how to successfully deal with failure, and learn from it. This second article is the sequel. If you have missed the first part and therefore lack the context, make sure to read the first part before you continue. You can find it here.
The world as we know is inherently complex, and we as humans are no exception – rather, we are possibly the apex of complexity. We are social animals that are biologically programmed to behave in certain ways, which often serves us very well, but sometimes sabotages our ability to act rationally.
When it comes to learning from failure, there are multiple obstacles that can trip us up, but there are primarily two aspects that stand out. The first is the cognitive shortfalls – our psychology that sabotages our learning – which is the topic of this article. The second is the lack of a structured method for how to capture failure, learn from it, and apply those learnings for effective change. This is the topic of the last and closing article in this three-part article series.
So which are these cognitive shortfalls? Let’s dive in!
Imagine a situation where you had a lot invested, perhaps you had prepared for months to give a speech, to take an exam or been writing a critical report for your manager – and the outcome was a failure. How did it feel when your judgement and performance was challenged by the evidence; that you failed?
Did you accept that your initial judgement was at fault and objectively reflect on it, analyze it to derive the lessons learned, and take action to prevent it from happening again?
Or did you deny the failure and reframe the evidence? This is what most people do when they face failure, because they believe it protects them from judgement and blame. This filtering and ignoring just to feel good in the moment comes at a hefty price in the long term. We scarcely realize that when we fall victim to self-justification, what we actually are doing is destroying the most potent opportunities to learn.
What to do about it: First, you need to recognize that nothing is more important than to understand reality and find ways for how to effectively deal with it. Viewing failure and problems objectively and synthesizing to learn about the cause and effect relations that govern the world is the only way to evolve in a desirable way. The next time you face failure, you should approach it with a new frame of mind – retuned to be more receptive and objective – so that you can see failure and problems for what they are: improvements screaming at you. Even those grounded in harsh realities that you would rather avoid confronting (such as those rooted in your own weaknesses). With this new perspective, failure can become the stepping stone to progress and ultimate success.
Think of a recent sports event that you watched, where an expert from a comfortable couch analyses the match. She sounds convincing, right? She can in intimate detail explain why every situation went as it did, and why the game ended like it did. But stop for a second and think about it. Afterwards everything sounds so obvious when she spells it out for you. But what about predicting the outcome of the game? Surely, if she can explain the outcome so well, she must be able to quite accurately foretell the outcome of matches?
Actually, research shows that predictions made by experts like our lady on the sports sofa are at best marginally better than the novice. [Source] Why is this?
Part of the explanation is that breaking down situations that have already occurred clouds our thinking and distorts out apprehension of the world. Lining up facts that clearly explain what happened in arrears skews us to believe that we have more control of situations than we actually do, which biases us to view the world as simplistic and predictable, when it in fact is complex and unpredictable. Nassim al Taleb, a distinguished author and thinker, gave this implied sense of certainty the name “narrative fallacy”.
Daniel Khaneman, a Nobel prize awarded behavioral scientist, has said: ”Narrative Fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative.” [Source]
In short, this tendency fools us to underestimate complexity and instills a false sense of certainty that biases us to willingly or unknowingly ignore or not even notice our failures, which prevents us from learning from our mistakes.
What to do about it: The best thing you can do is realize that the world is infinitely more complex than you believe, and develop an awareness and sensitivity to identify and recognize times when you are at risk of deceiving yourself. You should constantly be on the lookout for signposts – failures – that can show you the way, like a lighthouse for a ship in foggy, shallow waters.
Dealing with failure
We all have our specific relationship with failure and adversity, and for many it is difficult to maintain motivation when the pile of them amasses. But that what separates those who to succeed in the long term from those who don’t is not merely to acknowledge failure. One must also have a special type of persistence, which is a phenomenon that has been studied in depth and brought mainstream by Angela Duckworth in her new book called Grit.
Grit, she defines as a special blend of passion and persistence, and a person that is “gritty” has developed the ability to face adversity and failure, live with it, learn from it. In the history of innovation there are many prime examples of people who have proved gritty, such as James Dyson, the inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, who failed 5,126 times until he deemed his famous hoover be ready for the market.
What to do about it: To develop grit, you must set goals that energize, and have a long-term vision that means something to you and your employees. This must be combined with a growth mindset [Source], which means that you believe that intelligence can be developed, contrary to a fixed mindset, where you believe it cannot. This perspective, where every failure is viewed as an opportunity to develop yourself, is a prerequisite for consistently learning from failure.
By acknowledging and learning how to overcome the sabotaging effects of Cognitive Dissonance and Oversimplification, and at the same time developing “grit”, you’ll be able to significantly increase your ability to be innovative and transform your ability to learn quickly.
While a sound mindset is a great starting point, it is not enough on its own. In fact, to build your evolutionary engine, you must also develop an effective process for how to turn failure into learnings – which is the topic of the next article in this three-part series.
By Eicorn’s Management Consultant Daniel Borg