MBA applicants are routinely asked “the failure question” either in MBA essays or interviews. It always takes more or less the same form: “tell us about a time you failed and what you learned.”
As I’ve written before here, and in my book, the test is not to see if you have any weaknesses or failures. Everyone does. It is to see whether you are mature enough to recognize your failures and so address the implied weaknesses. Also, failures are more likely to occur in new, challenging tasks, so if you present “no failures” you are simply telling Adcom that you haven’t been adequately challenged.
The other day I picked up an interesting take on failure — creating “intelligent failure” — in the article Are You Squandering Your Intelligent Failures? by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath, on the HBR Blog.
McGrath says: “Despite widespread recognition that challenging times place unpredictable demands on people and businesses, I still run across many managers who would prefer to avoid the logical conclusion that stems from this: failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations. Instead of learning from failures, many executives seek to keep them hidden or to pretend that they were all part of a master plan and no big deal. To those executives, let me argue that an extraordinarily valuable corporate resource is being wasted if learning from failures is inhibited.
“Naturally, to an executive raised on the concept of “management by exception,” any failure at all seems intolerable. This world view is reinforced by the widespread adoption of various quality techniques, for instance, six sigma, in which the goal is to stamp out variations (by definition, failures) in the pursuit of quality…
“Failures are crucial to the process of organizational learning and sense-making. Failures show you where your assumptions are wrong. Failures demonstrate where future investment would be wasted. And failures can help you identify those among your team with the mettle to persevere and creatively change direction as opposed to pig-headedly charging blindly ahead. Further, failures are about the only way in which an organization can re-set its expectations for the future in any meaningful way.”
The point McGrath is making is failure is a route (perhaps, the route) to learning and future improvement. But not all failures have learning attached. One needs to set reasonable prior fail-safe mechanisms in place, and then interrogate a failure afterwards, to make a failure useful as learning. This turns it into an “intelligent failure.”
If you can show the MBA Adcom that you did this, that you didn’t just fail dumbly, or have turned a dumb failure into an intelligent failure, your essay will shine in all the right ways.