The Joy of Failure

“Thomas Alva Edison” by No machine readable author provided. Minivalley assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After struggling to develop a viable electric light-bulb for months and months, Thomas Edison was interviewed by a young reporter who boldly asked Mr. Edison if he felt like a failure and if he thought he should just give up by now. Perplexed, Edison replied, “Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.” And shortly after that, and over 10,000 attempts, Edison invented the light bulb.

Failure is one of the best things we can do to enhance our ability to be successful. It’s too bad that so many organization leaders don’t understand this.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has been studying how people handle failure for 40 years. Her research has led her to identify two distinct mind-sets that dramatically influence how we react to it.

A fixed mind-set is grounded in the belief that talent is genetic–you’re a born artist, athlete, or financial whiz.  Individuals with a fixed mind-set believe they are entitled to success without much effort and regard failure as an outrage and caused by something outside of themselves. When things get tough, they are quick to blame, withdraw, lie, and even avoid future challenge or risk.  In the fixed mindset it’s not enough to succeed, you have to be flawless and you have to be flawless right away.  Either you have “it” or you don’t.

A growth mind-set, on the other hand, assumes that talent is not genetically based and that effort and learning make everything possible. Because the ego isn’t on the line as much, the growth mind-set sees failure as opportunity rather than insult.  When challenged, it’s quick to reassess, adjust, and try again.  In fact, it relishes this process.

When those with growth mind-sets fail at a task, Dweck found that they enter a more focused mental state as they try to figure out their mistake.  And in subsequent trials, they improve. In effect, they’ve learned, and their brains have “grown.” Those with fixed mind-sets, however, never enter this focused state of learning and show little, if any, progress.  Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of Chieti, Italy, back this up and have used MRI’s to show that individuals with a growth mind-set actually “sculpt” the brains wiring.

Interestingly enough, the fixed mindset and its desire to think of oneself as perfect is often referred to as the “CEO disease.”  To be fair to CEO’s I would extend this obsession with infallibility to all the wannabe kings that exist in organization life . . . right down to many project managers.  And this explains why so many leaders fail to behave adaptively during times of change.

One of the primary reasons I’ve seen change initiatives fall off the rails is because project teams hate reporting bad news.  And they hate reporting bad news because project sponsors, project managers, organization leaders, procurement, and other technically-focused, fixed mind-set types sit on the sidelines waiting to pounce.  When something goes wrong, they quickly point the finger . . . at the vendor, the contract, the functional leader, each other or whomever and whatever is an easy scapegoat.

Consequently, this kind of environment causes project managers and teams to hide problems rather than coming clean about a missed deadline or an unclear project specification.  Eventually the problems escalate, and instead of learning, growing, and moving the project forward, everyone starts worrying about being judged.  As Dweck says, “It starts with the bosses’ worry about being judged, but it winds up being everybody’s fear about being judged.  It’s hard for courage and innovation to survive in companies with this mindset.”

Amen, sister!

Years after his mother pulled him out of school when the teacher thought him unteachable, Edison recalled, “My mother was the making of me.  She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”  She didn’t see the imperfection.  She saw the potential.

Success is not defined by perfect pedigrees, perfect resumes, and perfect personas.  It’s not even defined by perfect project plans or perfect execution.  Instead, it’s achieved by adapting, learning, growing and the constant warts-and-all quest for improvement.

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