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Learning from Failure

Ken Blanchard Posted by Ken Blanchard.

Ken is the coauthor (along with Jane Ripley and Eunice Parisi-Carew) of Collaboration Begins With You. He is also chief spiritual officer (CSO) of The Ken Blanchard Companies, an international management training and consulting firm that he and his wife, Dr. Marjorie Blanchard, founded in 1979 in San Diego, California. 


Learning from Failure

“Success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal” is one of my favorite quotes from my friend Don Shula, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins football team and my coauthor on the book Everyone’s a Coach. This philosophy drove a great deal of Coach Shula’s behavior during his long career as the winningest head coach in NFL history.

Don had a twenty-four-hour rule. He allowed himself, his coaches, and his players a maximum of twenty-four hours after a game to wallow in that game’s outcome—to fully experience either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. But once the twenty-four-hour deadline passed, they had to put it all behind them and focus their energies on preparing for the next game.

A colleague recently shared with me how she used this technique at work to turn a big mistake into a learning moment. One of our sales teams used an Excel spreadsheet saved on a shared drive to track revenue and bookings. The database provided an easy method to run reports by type of product sold, sales by person, and other key categories. Everyone on the team was able to access the document easily any time they needed information—that is, until the day one team member accidentally deleted the entire file! When the employee shared this news with her boss, she thought she might actually be fired.

The manager had a better idea. She calmed the employee down by asking her to start brainstorming how they might recreate the data. Together they came up with a few options: ask the IT department if the file had been backed up so they could just request a copy; check to see if anyone had copied the file onto their desktop, or recreate the file from scratch. This activity helped the employee start thinking in a positive manner instead of beating herself up. The manager did one more thing: she gave the employee permission to go ahead and lament her mistake as much as she wanted to—but only for twenty-four hours. After the required time, they would meet again to discuss next steps and to talk about what they both had learned.

What a difference a day makes. At first, the manager and employee were discouraged to find out the IT department didn’t have a backup—but then they discovered the manager had saved a copy of the file to her desktop a week earlier. So the employee needed only to update a week’s worth of data and the database was back in business.

Of course, the employee learned to be extremely careful when closing a shared file. But the biggest learnings proved to be the foundation for an ongoing trusted working relationship:

The employee learned:

  • she could be honest with her manager;
  • her manager trusted her to solve problems;
  • she and her manager worked well as a team; and
  • twenty-four hours is plenty of time to feel bad about a mistake.

The manager learned:

  • the importance of keeping her cool in the face of disaster; and
  • how to empower her employee to turn a problem into a victory.

As a result, their respect for each other grew and they went on for years, sharing successes and treating every challenge as a learning moment.

Give the twenty-four-hour rule a try. Celebrate successes but don’t get a big head—and don’t get too down on yourself when you don’t succeed. Keep things in perspective and remember: success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal.