How Business Analysts Can Embrace Failure to Make Better Decisions

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From a young age, students are taught to avoid failure. Failure means missing recess. Failure means staying back a grade. Failure means missing out on a college scholarship or going to your backup school. Our society is so focused on avoiding it, that we often ignore the benefits of failing.

No business or employee wants to fail, but the stigma around failure and mistakes should be reduced. Here’s how failure can make you a better business analyst and why it isn’t as bad as you probably think it is.

Failure is Less Terrifying Than it Seems

The first step business analysts need to take when approaching failure is to see that it’s not as bad as it seems. Some tests will fail, some reports will fail and some presentations will fail but the lessons you learn from them will help you succeed moving forward.

R.L. Adams compares making mistakes to playing a video game. The first time someone plays Frogger, they likely fall into the water. The experience is new and they’re just figuring the game out. During the next try, they know how to avoid falling in the water but might get hit by a car. The more they play, the more they learn the course, with the end result of each step forward either another failure or advancement to the next level.

“Practice definitely makes perfect, but not before a lot of imperfect moments and failed opportunities,” Adams writes.

Every time you avoid something because you know it will lead to a mistake is a reward for learning from making that mistake in the first place.

The Human Mind Inherently Predicts Disaster

As a whole, we tend to make failure seem much worse than it is, turning it into a terrifying monster that should be avoided at all costs. In an article for Entrepreneur, Larry Alton writes that humans have two inherent biases when calculating risk:

  • We exaggerate the possibility of failure.

  • We exaggerate the consequences of failure.

If for example, an employee is thinking about asking for a raise, they’re more likely to assume that the request will be rejected. That employee will also assume their manager will take them to task, just for asking, might call them lazy and possibly even fire them. While all highly unlikely scenarios, thoughts of consequences like these often hold us back.

Regrets Are Scarier Than Potential Failure

People who are afraid of failure have to ask themselves which is worse: taking a risk that might pay off (or fail miserably), or continue on the known path and never find out what could have been?

“Professionals who let the fear of failure impact their work don't take risks or suggest unusual innovations," Simon Slade, CEO and co-founder of Affilorama, tells CareerBuilder. "They tend not to make errors, but they also don't initiate grand ideas or make significant improvements."

Anyone who has seen their own idea brought to life by someone else willing to take the risk knows the regret of failing to act.

Why You Should Encourage Risks and Failure

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As a business analyst, embracing failure on a personal level isn’t always enough. People often turn to you for advice regarding what their business should do and whether an action is worth the risk. Your analysis can help them take that leap of faith or decide on a different tactic. By learning how to calculate risk and embrace a chance of failure, you can help teams make better decisions to grow.

Failure Forces People to Change Their Ways

Failure is an opportunity to force people out of their comfort zones to try something new. Employees or companies that are rigid in how things are done might have to fail significantly before they start changing their processes. However, for people who are flexible, failure is an opportunity to learn something new.

“Failures help you understand what to change the next time an issue comes up,” Dr. Fred Johnson writes at Initiative One. “Whether that is how you handle your decision-making or changing the actual decision, you will be able to take those chances.”

Failure Means Progress

Some companies have the resources to choose the safest options and highly-developed team members, but many companies have to take risks in order to break into an industry. 

“Creating an environment where it’s safe to fail sends a message that progress toward mastery is as important as, if not more important than, achieving mastery,” Steve Berczuk writes at TechWell.

This is the difference between a team like the New York Yankees (which is filled with stars and makes regular appearances in the World Series) and scrappier teams like the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays. As long as these scrappier teams keep trying to improve and grow, they have a chance of at least making the playoffs.

Failure Grows the Collective Experience

There’s another benefit to highlighting mistakes and taking risks instead of avoiding them: Learning from others boosts the collective experience of the whole.

Let’s say a driver flies through a large puddle and spreads water everywhere. This serves as a warning to the cars behind him to slow down and drive carefully through the water.

“Some mistakes don’t need to be repeated individually; we can all learn collectively from a single mistake and leverage each other’s experience,” Amy Errett, CEO of Madison Reed writes at Fortune.

The value everyone else gains from seeing one person fail reduces the cost of that initial failure.

How You Can Encourage Failure for Better Decision Making

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Failure is a value that can expand outside of the analyst’s department and across the company. When employees as a whole know they can take risks or make mistakes, then failure isn’t as much of a concern. Instead of basing their decisions around avoiding failure, employees can make choices based on achieving success.

Here a just a few steps on the individual and company level that you can encourage failure.

Hone Your Risk-Taking Skills Every Day

You don’t have to walk into the office every day with a new product idea or dramatic plan to change your company, but you should try to take more small risks throughout the week.

“Risk is a skill,” entrepreneur Susan Coelius Keplinger writes. “Skills are incremental, improved only through repetition and practice. By taking a new risk every day, however small, you’ll slowly increase your risk appetite.”

Your risks can be small, like speaking up during a meeting or presenting your boss with a new analytical that could help your team. The more you take these low-cost risks, the more familiar you become with the behavior and possibly determining the likelihood of success or failure.  

Define Failure

Many people say they’re afraid of failure when they are given the chance to do something new or challenging, but Ash Read says the concept of “failure” is pretty vague. He encourages people to specifically say what kind of failure they’re afraid of. Maybe they’re afraid that they won't get a raise they ask for. This could prevent them from getting the money they need and create an uncomfortable office environment.

Taking this step alone can help you move toward more solutions and away from prevention. For example, the employee could find another position in the company that pays better or look for work elsewhere. With backup plans, the risk of failure seems lower.

Managers can use this when talking to employees to find out why they’re unwilling to try something new.

Calculate Your Failure ROI

Experts Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas encourage professionals to calculate a “return on failure” whenever they stumble from a mistake:

  • The denominator is the resources you have invested in the activity.

  • The numerator is what you gain from the experience, including both your own experience (and increased skillset) and that of your team.

For example, an employee might ask for a test budget to try a new marketing strategy. If management grants $200 and he loses it all, then the denominator is the money, time, and labor used for the marketing plan. However, if the employee is more informed about the strategy and takes away lessons that earn the company money in the long-run, then the mistake has a positive failure ROI.

Eventually, you should be able to take this reactive failure ROI and turn it into proactive risk calculations. Instead of avoiding risks because of uncertainty and fearing the unknown, you can decide which levels of uncertainty you’re willing to accept in your office.

“Respected leaders take the calculated risks that others won’t when they fear too much making the wrong decision and having to face the consequences,” Glenn Llopis writes at Forbes. With the right evaluation, you can calculate when a risk is in your favor.

Get Feedback From Others

If you feel like you need to boost your failure ROI, seek out feedback from others. Learn where you went wrong, where others went wrong and what outside forces lead to the failure. While you certainly played a role in the failure, it likely wasn’t entirely you. Blaming yourself completely can hold you back from taking future risks.

“By identifying the fundamental reason for failure, you will be able to mitigate it in the future,” Katya Margolin writes at Virgin. “The old adage that it’s about the journey rather than the destination really does apply.”

Create a Failure Wall

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Jeff Stibel, vice chairman at Dun & Bradstreet, was part of the team that started a failure wall in his company. Employees could describe a time they failed, what they learned and then sign their names. The goal was to remove the stigma attached to failure.

“Failure is often the elephant in the room that no one wants to mention, but failure is critical to success,” Stibel writes. “Acknowledging failures makes these ideas less imposing, and opens up the dialogue to a real conversation about calculated risk taking.”

Failure isn’t something that should be hidden or ignored, but rather celebrated when you learn something from it.

Interestingly, encouraging employees to make more mistakes can actually lead to fewer. Rehan Ijaz explains that people who are pressured to never make a single mistake actually make more because their anxiety prevents them from focusing on the issue at hand.

“Allowing a margin for error helps reduce that stress and reduces the likelihood of mistakes happening in the first place because your team isn’t under pressure to be perfect,” he writes.

Give an Award for Failure

In his book, Brilliant Mistakes, Paul J. H. Schoemaker shares the story of a CEO who created a Golden Egg Award for the best mistakes. He even made a gold, spray-painted egg trophy for that employee’s desk.

While employees were nervous about competing for it at first and timidly shared their failures, they eventually saw it as a reward for courage, trust or quick decision-making in a crisis even if they caused the crisis themselves. So many good skills are honed when a mistake is made that rewarding them can help make a team stronger.

Taking risks can be viewed as a sign of trust from your employees and from management. When employees think management trusts them, they’re more willing to act in a way that could have higher risks but higher rewards. Employees also have to trust that management won't punish them for making a mistake.

“It’s up to you to set [your employees] free and let them know that they can succeed and take risks,” Chantal Bechervaise writes. “If you have hired the right people, for the right positions, then let them use their talents to their full abilities.”       

Failure is inevitable in the workplace. However, the way you react to failure determines how much you have to fear from taking risks or making mistakes. If you take calculated risks and learn from every mistake, then you have nothing to fear from failure.