Learning from Failure

Signium invited 35 distinguished leaders to an informal evening event for an opportunity to network and discuss topical business issues. The theme of the evening was 'Learning from Failure' and included a panel discussion followed by Q&A


The evening was hosted by Signium UK Managing Partner Alastair Paton who posed questions to the panel consisting of Matt Pullen; Managing Director UK & Ireland at AkzoNobel Decorative Coatings; Neil Fraser, Formerly Executive Chair & CEO of Produce World Group Limited; Steve Philpott, Chairman of Swimming Nature and Mosaic Spa & Health Clubs; Mike Fairman, CEO of GiffGaff and Peter Oden, Commercial Director at Belazu Ingredient Company.

Aside from its dictionary definition, there are clearly different views on what failure means in a business setting. The most optimistic definition offered was one that sees failure as “just finding another way of not succeeding” with general agreement that whilst failure fundamentally means not achieving desired goals, it is important to learn from the process and understand what needed to have happened differently at the beginning and middle of the process, not just focus on the end result. 

Failure is universally seen as inevitable, particularly if organisations want to push the boundaries of innovation. Whilst there was a general view that failure itself shouldn’t be celebrated, the lessons from failure should be communicated widely in order to drive continuous improvement. 

Advice from the panel in mitigating some of the risk in decisions involved using all data points at your disposal, including hard financial data and statistics through to the judgment of experts in relevant fields. Whilst risk in decisions cannot be fully eradicated, it can at least be quantified so that pros and cons can better understood to bring more certainty. As one of the panel pointed out “doing something always has a degree of risk and doing nothing is rarely an option” so leaders constantly have to evaluate and take risks in order to progress.

Culture was also at the centre of much of the discussion with audience members keen to hear how leaders can create a climate where failure is tolerated or even encouraged. It is clear that actions speaks louder than words with our panel feeling that leaders need to empower their teams to make decisions with the potential of failing but then need to be there to support and ensure learning when things do not go to plan.
There were a number of key themes and lessons that came through during the discussion, best summed up in the following quotes:

  • Success has many fathers, the opposite is generally true in terms of failure
  • Leaders need to encourage collective responsibility. They should share in the failure and pass on the success
  • Learning from failure is about corrective action not blame
  • If (and when) you fail, fail fast, learn, go again

The prevailing view from both the panel and assembled guests was that failure should always be seen as an opportunity to learn and it is about how organisations and their leaders extract and use this learning that ultimately determines whether something is indeed a failure.

The evening itself was resoundingly judged to be a success with a good mix of learning, debate, networking and socialising, a combination we will continue to facilitate in future events. We hope to see you at the next one!