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IT leadership lessons you can learn from failure

Rich Hein | Jan. 7, 2014
Although you work tirelessly to prevent them, failures happen in IT. It's important that you discover the secret for turning mistakes into lessons you can use to become a more effective leader.

The problem arises when new things don't work out and you or your organization are more focused on placing blame then solving the problems at hand. How willing and enthusiastic will workers be to step out of the normal routine? The answer is, not very, so the question becomes, do you as an IT leader create an environment where people on your team feel comfortable to speak up and voice objections large or small?

"A safe-to-fail environment by design encourages creativity, risk-taking ability and innovation. It allows employees to experiment with new ideas and provides an environment where failure is an acceptable outcome. At NutriSavings and Edenred, we actively promote innovation and help our colleagues take calculated risks to ensure on-going learning," says Niraj Jetly, senior vice president-COO & CIO of NutriSavings LLC.

IT leaders, understandably, don't want to create an environment where there is no accountability for failure. They can be concerned that if they appear too accepting of failure, workers won't necessarily be motivated to perform at their highest standards but rather what they feel they can get away with.

According to Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business School Professor and author of the 2011 HBR article, Strategies for Learning from Failure, that isn't the case. According to her research, there are in actuality very few blameworthy acts that are what she calls, "deliberate deviance." The rest fall into more of a grey area where placing blame isn't very easy or useful.

Don't Shoot the Messenger
"Failures are an inevitable part of business and technology. Empathy is the best way to respond to a failure. Empathy communicates trust and people perform best when they feel trusted. If a person is already low on confidence due to guilt of failure, our focus should be to help the person to come out of that guilt and later on help them reflect back on what could have been done differently," says Jetly.

Avoid the Blame Game
"The blame game is still such a challenge because it is so deeply ingrained in our psychology and as small children we learn pretty early on if we do something wrong we get blamed. It's an emotionally unpleasant feeling. We don't want to experience it we try to push it away. That childhood feeling follows us through our developing and adult years. We bring it into the workplace and again for reasons that are both emotional and quite logical; connected with promotions and other activities. We don't want to be blamed for things going wrong, according to Edmondson.

Own Your Mistakes
If it was your fault, don't try to shift blame own up and move forward. "Everyone makes their fair share of mistakes. One of the lessons that I have learnt through experience, is that rather than defending yourself, accept the mistake as soon as it is realized. Early acceptance helps significantly in aligning efforts to quickly take corrective action. In addition this provides much needed peace of mind," says Jetly.


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