Column: Risk Management

Strength in Failure

By: | October 15, 2013

Joanna Makomaski is a specialist in innovative enterprise risk management methods and implementation techniques. She can be reached at [email protected]

I have several mentors, for whom I am extremely grateful. Some of them aren’t even aware they are mentoring me. I try to meet with one of my teachers once a week. Simply, I share time with them and ask them to recall special events in their lives. I take these recollections and build a thesis around the experiences. What I learned this week from a few of my mentors floored me.

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This week I asked them: What was your biggest mistake? What was your biggest failure? Without exception each of them smiled, paused and reflected on their biggest “mistake.” Each of my esteemed wise owls shared the same truth: They never would have learned from success as much as they had learned from disappointing failures. They concluded unanimously that they would not be the people they were today without the experience gained in failing.

I pondered the paradox: Why is it we try so hard not to fail?

Simply put, failing hurts. It causes pain, sometimes substantial pain. Worst of all, it can cause pain to others unintentionally. There are consequences to some risks that would feel intolerable. But do we not learn the most from taking those risks?

Listening to my colleagues, I heard their stories of pushing the envelope. What was even more illuminating was that they all strategically took on the risk. They were aware their “ask” or “stretch” was well beyond their comfort zone. None of them were certain of the outcome. All of them expected tremendous success for no other reason than they felt worthy and deserving of it.

In their recollection of events, they admitted their failures ultimately resulted from lack of experience, preparation or expertise. Deep down, each of the mentors admitted they were honestly unprepared for the task, the project or the job. Post-failure, they resolved to greatly improve their skills or management style, or they simply conceded that they would, if the opportunity ever presented itself again, hire people or businesses with the capability to fulfill the role and deliver success.

While each had a different path to success, they each pursued different strategies following their failures. They were honest with themselves, acknowledged their mistakes and made life-changing affirmations to never make that specific mistake again.

As I reflected on my week’s education, I took stock of my own failures. It struck me that I haven’t failed in some time. Is that good news? I find myself extremely comfortable in my personal and professional space. Is it luck, wisdom or apathy?

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I then reflected on the risk management business we practice: As a collective, are we failing enough? Are we pushing the envelope or simply trying to fit everything inside the envelope comfortably? As a leader in my line of business, am I encouraging others to take risks?

It is easy to discourage risk. With most decisions, we tend to take the less risky approach. Perhaps it is time to loosen the reins and stretch for goals that appear to be beyond our capability. We may fail, but in doing so we will see our weak links. Perhaps our failures will make us stronger and give us the tools to grow beyond our current paradigms. In my circle, it appears that we will never grow to our potential until we try to reach beyond what we believe we are capable of.

Let’s not forget: The best thing about failing is the silver lining; the learning experience.

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]