If you work in the startup world, or more happy-clappy business environments, you will be used to discussing failure as a positive. How can you fail fast? How can you learn by embracing failure? There are countless quotes online about failure and TED has a whole topic category for talks on failure.
We are exhorted to try and to not fear failure. We are told that we will either succeed, or learn trying. The unfortunate fact is that we do not always learn trying. Here are three cases of failure where you will not learn a thing.
1. Repeat failure
Smug business leaders love to talk about not repeating the same mistakes. In this idealised world, an employee cocks something up and the rest of the business magically grows so that it never happens again. Back in the real world, we are all human. How often have you had something fail, only then to remember the parallel situation that you could have learnt from last month? And yes, this situation has happened to me more than once :)
2. Lack of effort
At the winners' event for the Sunday Times Best Companies' to Work For, a CEO caused some sharp intakes of breath when he said that he could forgive any mistake but woe betide the employee who didn't try. This is a sentiment that is coming to be recognised more and more in the business world. In the scenario where someone hasn't pushed themselves, failure becomes meaningless.
3. Plain bad luck
Business outcomes rarely rely on something as simple as the toss of a coin, but many are subject to events that you cannot affect and can be considered random from your point of view. If you start a business that would have been successful just before a macro-economic downturn that kills it, what do you learn? Diddly-squat.
The good news
Whether you have failured in a hearty constructive way, or in a disappointing repeat scenario, the good news is that your next steps are exactly the same. Positive psychologists will have no doubt why talk of failure as a positive is growing - human beings are much more susceptible to negative outcomes than by the opposite. So however we try to dress up failure we will always experience a sinking heart and a desire to clamber back under the bedcovers, no matter how much spin we put onto the upsides.
What's important is what comes next. The most important characteristic of a leader is resilience. Those who succeed in life are those who can pick themselves up, dust themselves down and start all over again, no matter what the trauma.
So perhaps I was wrong about the lack of learning - failure will always give you a chance to practice the most important business skill... getting back on the horse.