Published: 19/08/2004, Volume II4, No. 5919 Page 29

Nothing succeeds like success but, says Paul Ashford, learning from our failures is half the battle

During a recent training session in 'mentoring skills' I was severely admonished for using the F-word. The discussion was about mentoring, and I referred to the constructive use of failure.This generated a sharp intake of breath, a pitying look, and a clear message that the F-word is not acceptable - far too negative and demoralising.

I go along with this to some extent, particularly when working with those on the first rungs of the management ladder, but for those looking to step up into leadership roles the importance of accepting and being responsible for failure - and using it creatively - has to be recognised.We do, after all, all fail with monotonous regularity. It was Churchill who said, 'Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm'.

In the main our failures will be low-impact events from which we can easily recover and our natural tendency is to try and forget them as quickly as possible once the remedy has been applied.What we need to recognise is the importance of these events.We can learn more from one failure than from 100 successes.Failure gives us the opportunity for great creativity, for failure, more often than necessity, is the mother of invention.

The first obstacle to be overcome in learning to fail successfully is the need to recognise failure as a natural part of life that should not be surrounded by negative connotations and emotions.However diligently we try not to do so, from time to time we act in ways that produce a negative outcome.What matters is what we do as a result of this action. If we 'correct and forget' then we are truly failing, for we are not learning. If, on the other hand, we 'review and improve' then we become more effective in our role.

There is an important parallel with risk management.Organisations that have a 'no blame' culture that encourages the identification and reporting of adverse events will have a much higher overall rate of recorded incidents than less open organisations, but conversely they will have far fewer severe incidents.Applying the same thinking to our personal failures suggests that if we recognise and learn from the day-to-day incidents we are less likely to find ourselves having to deal with a failure which has really serious consequences.

Effective leadership invariably involves working with change and innovation where risk is high.The leader who can successfully navigate an organisation through such uncharted waters will be the one who recognises failure and uses it to build success.

Paul Ashford is head of planning, facilities and information technology at the Welsh Blood Service.