There is an interesting tradition that has occurred for years throughout schools across America. Students strive for it. Schools reward it. Parents advertise it. It’s a system built on the grades achieved instead of the lessons learned. It is the practice of rewarding perfection instead of creating an environment that values failure. We spend so much of a child’s educational career praising perfection that we rob them of the opportunities to learn from failure.
Failing sucks. Some people never recover from failure. They allow the doubt, fear, and insecurities associated with failure to overshadow the accomplishment of trying. A person who has never tried can never fail, but this same person will also never know success.
If you ask any accomplished business person, athlete, or artist, you will hear countless stories about fear, failure, and rejection before you hear that one story of success. Whether we like to admit it or not, successful organizations are all built on a foundation of failure. Failures come in all shapes and sizes. Successful organizations do not plan for failure, but they expect it to occur. When failure does happen, they study it, not to place blame, but in order to try better next time. For successful organizations, there is always a next time.
The same is true for successful higher education institutions. Highly developed outcomes assessment plans provide institutions with valuable data. Patterns become evident allowing institutions to see where they have succeeded, but more importantly where they have failed. These plans help to establish guidelines for learning from these failures. A successful outcomes assessment plan provides three steps for continuous improvement: ownership, focus, and change.
- It’s mine. No one needs to teach us how to play the “blame game.” It’s a characteristic every person already possesses. Finger pointing starts on the playground and continues in the workplace. One of the first steps in understanding failure is taking ownership. It’s not about being a martyr, but about owning the lesson resulting from the failure. If an institution does not meet their internal goals, the question is “why” not “who”. Asking “who” doesn’t initiate the learning process. Only by asking “why” do we push aside blame and focus on the changes that need to be made.
- It’s ours. All organizations must have a focus. A mission statement provides direction and clarity. This singular focus becomes the lens used to measure risks. Sometimes organizations fail in their endeavors because they stray from their mission or what they do best. Instead of refining products or services, they get distracted and pursue projects associated with fleeting trends. Institutions need to evaluate failures using their mission as a guide to seek opportunities, pursue challenges, and overcome threats.
- It’s now. Change is never easy, but once the “why” of failure has been identified and determined to align with the mission, then it’s time for change. Continuing to repeat the same actions while hoping for different results is insanity, but creating thoughtful plans as a result of analyzing data collected is intelligent action. As a result of the data, changes are implemented that demonstrates the lessons learned. This provides the opportunity to fail forward.
Ultimately, failure is hard to deal with, but not impossible to overcome. Higher education has a unique opportunity to shift the minds of students. Instead of allowing failure to cause paralysis, institutions need to provide students with the tools to identify, understand, and learn from what didn’t work and create a safe environment that gives students the freedom to fail. Failure is the building block to growth, maturity, and success. It’s the playground for the innovator, the creative space for the entrepreneur, the journal for the writer, but most of all it is the greatest teacher for all students.
“Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure” ~ Sumner Redstone
What have you learned from failure?