Failure or a Chance to Learn?
Behavioural Coach, Michelle Ensuque, writes about what failing has taught her and why we should treat this word, loaded with negativity, as something positive.
An article struck me on Elon Musk's attempts to travel to and inhabit Mars. The 160-foot tall SNB rocket recently completed its first high altitude flight of 41,000 feet for 5 minutes and 40 seconds but burst into flames when returning to land. Musk's response was to see it as 'awesome', an amazing success because it reached its altitude target and collected data en-route. To him, failure was simply an opportunity to improve.
So, when we look at failure, how do we view it?
What makes one person give up, and another strive for perfection?
Again, it's not 'one size fits all'. If coaching were that simple, I'd be out of a job!
It's about ourselves as human beings; the interactions that have led us to this point; our values and beliefs, and the choices we've made along the way.
Looking back, I think one of my strengths was determination and that damn irritatingly positive attitude. I say irritating because it can drive other people mad. But, if something went wrong for me in the past, I wouldn't give up.
I failed my Maths O-level 3 times - each time getting a D. The fourth time, I got a B and honestly thought it was a spelling error! I failed my driving test 3 times (there is a theme here of 4th time lucky!).
I failed my project management APM qualification the first time around because my darling boys had chosen that very week to be sick at the same time. This left me in the position of managing sleep that just pipped into double figures by the time the exam came round on the Friday. I opened up the paper could barely write my name, never mind understand the questions!
The second time around, I passed.
I've failed people by letting them down through lack of communication or some other thoughtless act. I've reflected, and I've learned.
I 'failed' to get into the RAF the first time around. I got through the three days of interviews and tests, but they said they were concerned as I had only really operated in the world of music, and they wanted to be sure I was committed. They did, however, ask me to come back in two years. I hissed and sighed and thought that two years was so far into the future, but I quit music teaching and moved to London, where I worked in the catering industry. I gained experience managing teams, accounts, working long hours, and managing situations when technology or equipment let us down. When I did then reapply to the RAF, I succeeded and felt a better-equipped individual as a result.
When I left the RAF and joined Mott MacDonald as a project manager, I felt underconfident as I was the only non-engineer in an engineering environment. It wasn't a problem for Mott MacDonald – it was MY problem, as in, I chose to see it that way. I constantly worried about people's perceptions of me, but I never said anything. I had created, in my head, an idea or expectation about the person I needed to be.
Several years in, we won a huge contract, and I was the lead project manager. I was terrified. The thought of it made me sick.
Something interesting happened one day, though. My boss was chatting things through, and I admitted that I found the whole thing slightly (silently insert, 'massively') overwhelming. His response has stayed with me to this day. He said, "Michelle, things will go wrong, but it's not what goes wrong that matters; it's how we deal with them".
I looked at him and thought, 'how amazing is that? Because now I no longer feel like I am alone, I know he has my back, and I can go to him if there is a problem'.
Create Space for Failure
So often, we can be scared of delivering bad news about project issues around escalating costs or timescales slipping. We have predicted the outcome of that conversation, and we try and avoid it at all costs. However, by the time the problem has become visible, it has also likely become more serious. Knowing that I could share my fears by feeling safe in that space, I knew I would raise things early because there would be no reprimand, only help and guidance.
I also realised that whilst I didn't have ALL the skills I might have thought I needed. I had enough, and what I didn't have, I'd develop or find elsewhere. I could motivate; I was a hard worker; I was curious and asked questions; I developed relationships. I learned to be confident in what I knew I could do, not worrying about what I couldn't.
From a management perspective, something going wrong wasn't seen as a failure; it was more about what we learned from it and how we moved forward. I wasn't worried about 'failing' from that point. I gave the team that same message I was given and just tried to ensure they performed to the best of their ability and that equally, I was there for them when things didn't quite go according to plan. When you don't have that sense of impending doom hanging over you, the overall experience is so much more positive. It also proves how words delivered from manager to employee can be so important, but that is a different topic for another day.
What's the point of this?
Well, I choose not to give up. I always prefer to see each day as a new beginning – it's just the way I operate. Yesterday was yesterday, and I can't change what happened then, but today, I can start afresh, and maybe that will influence how tomorrow will turn out. I've always wanted to succeed, whether that was to gain independence, to better myself or just to bloomin' well prove to myself that I could do it.
So, what was key to achieving that?
I wanted it. I really wanted it. Trying was more important than failing. Failing was in the past. Success lay in my future. Plus, when it was needed, I was given permission to fail. In understanding that failing wasn't failing, I was learning.
If you've 'failed' at something recently, how do you view it now? Silently licking your wounds vowing never to step into that space again or, like Elon Musk 'awesome, it's an opportunity to learn and do better?'
Michelle Ensuque is a behavioural coach whose project management and consultant career has spanned 30 years across public and private sectors.