Business musings

Articles and thoughts about Alberto Alessi

Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Performance Improvement  Psychology  

Last week, I wrote about how nothing breeds success like failure but ended on a crucial question: How? How do we affirm failure correctly and effectively? How do we encourage perseverance and daring? How do we embrace failure and turn it into success?

My reading around failure has uncovered several suggestions and I would love to add a few of my own.

1. Stop the denial

Failure happens—fact! You will fail; if not today, then tomorrow, next month or next year. Your failure may be big or small, catastrophic or common, but the one thing I can guarantee is that you will experience it.

We need to stop hiding from failure, avoiding it and denying it. As individuals and organisations, it’s ok to admit failure and to put it right. Starbucks has even adopted this as part of their customer service ethos: “Your drink should be perfect, every time. If not, let us know and we’ll make it right.”

At a deeper level, we also need to “acknowledge that some people—even ambitious people, smart people, talented people, tenacious people, good people—experience failures that turn out to be more than mere bumps on the road to success.”

Before we can turn around failure of any form, we must “strive for transparency,” both within our organisations and in the interactions we have with one another.

2. Disown failure as an individual identity

Did you know that in 18th century English, failure as an identity did not exist in our language? Scott Sandage points out that “the usage ‘he is a failure’ or ‘I feel like a failure’ was unknown; people spoke of going into business and ‘making a failure of it’. The striver was still responsible for paying for (and learning from) his own mistakes—but the shop or the counting house was the failure, not the person.”

Such depersonalisation makes failure much easier to face. It also enables objectivity and more effectively facilitates learning. Further, this perspective is a much closer reflection of the truth. We rarely fail entirely alone or entirely through our own fault—usually, circumstance is much more complex than that.

3. Exempt ourselves and others from the obligation to succeed

Closely related to failure as an identity is the pressure to succeed. Real or perceived pressure to ensure that we don’t let others down, disappoint or fail to meet expectations. None of us should be living in fear of the consequences of our failure for, if this is the case, we will never have the courage to try.

Those who experience failure can be ostracised and may experience emotions such as shame and humiliation. High profile failures, such as that of Gerald Ratner, reveal the stigma that can be attached to failure. For some the effect of this stigma is extreme. A study on the relationship between debt and suicide in Japan showed that some consider suicide preferable to their financial failure—in one 52-year old debtor’s words: “Bankruptcy means you’re a loser for life.”

Although it is inevitable that certain failures will, and should have, consequences, we need to ensure that these consequences are not permanent and nor are they terminal. We need to create a culture in which failure does not engender blame and retribution but that consequences are fair and representative of the action.

Similarly, we need to take down the pedestals upon which we place others and accept that they, like us, will fall. Second, third, fourth, or even one hundredth chances should be available to all.

4. Set realistic expectations

Success is rarely instantaneous but, in a culture that craves instant gratification and “admire[s] instant…effortless brilliance,” this is all too easy to forget.

We need to recognise that success takes time and there will be failures along the way. As organisations and as individuals, we need to set realistic expectations about what is is possible to achieve. In the words of Aza Raskin, former Creative Lead for Firefox, “Your first try will be wrong. Budget and design for it.”

5. Understand the failure spectrum

As I mentioned in my last article, failure is nuanced. At one end of the spectrum is failure that forms “an essential part of a [learning] process” but at the other is failure with “dark” and catastrophic consequences. We need to be able to recognise the different types of failure and employ effective strategies for each.

Within our organisations, we need to create processes, systems, cultures and budgets that allow for and encourage “intelligent” failure.

However, where catastrophic or abject failure is a risk, multiple failsafes should be built in. All too often, “individuals can be quite adept at picking up on hints of failure in the making [but] organisations typically fail to process and act on their warnings.” Such failure is not to be encouraged. At whatever point on the spectrum failure lies, “leaders…must shape cultures that are open both to the possibility of failure and the need to learn when problems do occur.”

6. Create a learning culture

I love this tip from Richard Watson on Fast Company: “Try to fail as often as possible but never make the same mistake twice.” We need to create organisational cultures that both accept and learn from failure. Prototyping, agile methodologies, even basketball or piano practice, do not involve doing the same thing over and over again. Rather, they require that we “learn from [our] failure and try again differently.”

We also need to ensure that we learn from our failures as quickly as possible. Aza Raskin tells the story of Paul MacCready’s efforts to solve the problem of human-powered flight. Whilst others were spending upwards of a year building planes that were destroyed within a matter of minutes and could not easily be rebuilt, MacCready set out to “build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months.” Such an approach enabled him to rapidly iterate and the “relearn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.” Suffice to say, it was MacCready’s planes that claimed Henry Kremer’s rewards for turning his dream of flight into reality.

7. Dare to do things the wrong way

Sometimes, in order to achieve success, we need to dare to do things wrong. Sir James Dyson suggests “initiat[ing] a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path.” In creating the Dyson vacuum cleaner, the conventionally shaped cyclone simply wouldn’t work; it was only when Dyson tried “the wrong shape” that he discovered his key to success. “It was wrong-doing rather than wrong-thinking. That’s not easy, because we’re all taught to do things the right way.”

Alberto Alessi describes this as “danc[ing] on the borderline between success and disaster.” He points out however that “working close to the borderline is very risky, because you cannot see it with your eyes. It is not clearly drawn or marked. You can only feel it by using sensibility and intuition…One step more, and you risk falling into the not-possible area.” Dare to do things the wrong way but do so wisely.

8. Aim for fallure not failure

In Hitting the vertical wall: realizing that vertical limits aren’t, Jim Collins tells the story of attempting to complete an on-sight climb of a route known as the Crystal Ball. A challenging climb, Collins found himself exhausted only three moves away from the crystal. He gave up and let go. In his words, he “failed in [his] mind.”

Learning from his disappointment, Collins went on to discover what he has coined climbing to “fallure, not failure”. When climbing to fallure, you may still fall but you do not choose to do so. Mentally and physically, you give it your all, until either you conquer the rockface or it conquers you.

Collins applies this idea to life and to business. “Going to fallure in life is scary, but not dangerous. Whether it be starting a business or publishing a book or trying an exciting new design, fallure rarely means doom. And most important, [fallure is] the only way to find your true limit.”

9. Know when to quit and when to push on through

Closely related to fallure is the need to know when to quit and when to push on through. Seth Godin talks about the idea of “the dip”—the slog that occurs between learning and mastery. Often such dips need to be beaten and perseverance will lead to success. However, what looks like a dip can also be a “dead end.” We need to be able to recognise the difference.

Similarly, fallure should be used wisely and must be combined with our understanding of the failure spectrum and its risks. Collins later relates the story of the time he convinced another, less experienced climber, to continue climbing a cliff named Cynical Pinnacle even though a storm was approaching. His partner’s rope lodged in a crack and they found themselves trapped “with the temperature in the fifties and dropping, [and] facing a full early-spring front.” Fortunately, both men lived to climb another day but it should be said that continuing to fallure in the midst of a perilous and dangerous situation is sheer folly.

10. Learn the skills to handle failure

Daniel Ostrower, in a comment on Jamer Hunt’s article, pointed out that a “special set of skills (both emotional and intellectual) is required to diagnose and learn from failure.” He argues that, “Not everyone can do it, and even those that can will have more difficulty in certain situations than others.” While I agree that handling failure can be difficult, I wonder whether it is possible to learn skills that would enable us to handle it more effectively. Through studies, such as that of Life after business failure, we can begin to understand the processes that occur and uncover strategies for dealing with failure more effectively.

It should also be said that learning from failure is a process. Business failure involves loss and the psychological effects of such have been likened to those of grief. Just as grieving is a process, so is recovering from failure. Failure can be painful and we need to allow ourselves “time to recover from the hurt”. Only when we have done this, can we engage in “critical reflection,” examining the reasons for the failure and learning to move beyond them.

Michael Jordan—a final word

To return to where we began this journey, Michael Jordan has had astounding success but it has been founded on hard work, dedication, perseverance and failure. In another famous Nike advert, he says:

Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I led you to believe it was easy when it wasn’t…Maybe it’s my fault that you didn’t see that failure gave me strength—that my pain was my motivation. Maybe I led you to believe that basketball was a God-given gift and not something I worked for—every single day of my life.

Maybe I destroyed the game.

Or maybe, you’re just making excuses.



Michael Jordan was never shooting to lose but that didn’t mean he never missed. We need to dare to fail in order to succeed. As organisations and as individuals, if we allow ourselves to be paralysed by our fear of missing, we will never take the shot that wins or loses us the game.

What can you dare to fail at today?

And for those of you who like the research…

Collins, J. (2003). Hitting the wall: realizing that vertical limits aren’t. Jim Collins

Hunt, J. (2011). Among six types of failure, only a few help you innovate. Fast Co.Design

McGregor, J. (2007). Gospels of failure. Fast Company

Raskin, A. (2012). You are solving the wrong problem. Aza Raskin

Salter, C. (2007). Failure doesn’t suck. Fast Company

Salter, C. (2007). Failure doesn’t suck – part 2. Fast Company

Sandage, S.A. (2012). Get back in the saddle. Times Higher Education

Ucbasaran, D., Shepherd, D., Lockett, A. & Lyon, J. (2012). Life after business failure: the process and consequences of business failure for entrepreneurs. CSME Working Paper.

Watson, R. (2008). Celebrate failure. Fast Company

West, M. (2003). Dying to get out of debt: consumer insolvency law and suicide in Japan. The John M. Olin Center for Law & Economics Working Paper Series, 03-015.

Wylie, I. (2007). Failure is glorious. Fast Company


Posted by Debbie Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Performance Improvement  Psychology  

It is an inevitable and unavoidable truth that we will all, at one time or another, fail.

Individually. Collectively. Personally. Organisationally.

But the less obvious truth is that failure can lead to success.

To err is human

I missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Believe it or not, these are the words of Michael Jordan, arguably basketball’s “greatest of all time.” His accomplishments include “two gold medals, six finals MVP awards, five league MVP awards, three All-Star MVP awards, ten scoring titles, Defensive Player of the Year and an induction to the Hall of Fame in 2009.”



Before creating the revolutionary vacuum cleaner we know and love today, Sir James Dyson invested 15 years, nearly his entire savings, and built 5,127 prototypes before he got it right.  In his words that means, “There were 5,126 failures.”

Scott Sandage (author and associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University) says:

To paraphrase the anthopologist Marshall Sahlins, academics can be certain of two things: someday we’ll be dead and eventually we’ll all be proven wrong. (Sahlins’ tip for a successful career: make sure the first precedes the second.)

Of entrepreneurship, Charlie Gilkey says:

You’ll make too little and sweat it. You’ll make too much and blow it. You’ll say Yes and kick yourself for it. You’ll say No and spend the rest of the year remembering the ‘wrong’ forks you took.

And the good news is…?

All of these people have experienced failure. They’ve admitted failure. And they’ve known success.

While failure is uncomfortable, difficult, embarrassing and, at times, devastating, it can also be a catalyst for learning, change and reward.

In some cases, failure is essential for achievement and inherent to attaining a goal.

Alberto Alessi, winner of the Design Award for Lifetime Achievement and third generation head of the iconic Italian design firm, told Fast Company:

I have to remind my brothers how vital it is to have one, possibly two fiascoes per year. Should Alessi go for two or three years without a fiasco, we will be in danger of losing our leadership in design.

Walking the winding road to success

Much as we like to think of the journey to success as being like a Roman road, straight and unswerving, in reality it almost always involves roundabouts, u-turns, blind alleys, detours and hairpin bends.

I love the below cartoon (attributed to Demetri Martin, This is a book) and, having become an online meme over the last couple of years, it would seem that it has resonated with others also.

Two cartoon sketches side-by-side, both titled 'Success'. The cartoon on the left shows a perfectly straight arrow with the caption 'Success: what people think it looks like'. The cartoon on the right shows another arrow but this time with a tangle of wiggly lines in its centre and the caption 'Success: what it really looks like'.

Following such a winding path does however require persistence, tenacity, determination and resilience—it is not easy to keep going in the face of multiple setbacks. Honesty, transparency, maturity and humility are also all needed.

Yet, numerous authors have observed that it is these very traits that can be the source of reward.

For more than 100 years, psychologists and scholars have shown that perseverance seems to be inherent to success over and above either talent or intelligence. Honesty and transparency can also result in the development of credibility and trust.

Avoiding the anti-failure bias

Accepting and admitting failure requires us to confront our fears. It also involves risk—risk of rejection, risk of misunderstanding and risk of consequences. Perhaps this is why we naturally shy away from failure and seek to avoid it whenever possible. Rita McGrath (a professor at Columbia Business School) has coined this tendency the “anti-failure bias.”

But, as we have already seen, failure does not always have the negative impact we so fear. In fact, McGrath points out that an avoidance of failure can itself have unintended and negative consequences. Ironically, failure can be caused and exacerbated by a blinkered desire for success.

We therefore need to create a culture in which it is acceptable to fail, both individually and organisationally. A culture that encourages experimentation and learning. A culture in which individuals and organisations are encouraged to admit their failures and move beyond them.

Many designers and developers have already learned this lesson and agile methodologies encourage their users to: “Fail early, fail fast, fail often.” In essence, this involves rapidly prototyping ideas to test their strengths and weaknesses, discover their failure points, and unearth future improvements. Rather than investing vast amounts of time and money into a fatally flawed project, such an approach ensures that “every failure is a step on the path to success.”

A big, fat BUT…

In writing this article, I do not wish to portray the idea that all failure is good. Circumstances in which failure has resulted in crippling and catastrophic consequences are within all too easy reach: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster; the global financial crisis; or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to name but a few. In both these disasters and within our own circles, there will be people “for whom failure is a crushing reality, not an inspiring lesson.”

Failure is never without a cost. In a working paper on life after business failure, the authors identify entrepreneurial failure as having three primary costs: “financial, social and psychological.” In some cases, it is possible to moderate and recover from these; at other times, the costs can prove debilitating.

Tellingly, the authors also observe that struggling ventures that delay cessation have variously been referred to as “‘permanently failing’…’unproductive’…’chronic failures’.. and ‘the living dead’”. It seems safe to assume that none of these are desirable states.

Whilst the journey to success is undoubtedly a winding road, ploughing ahead in the face of warning signals at every juncture is surely a fool’s errand. Failure is nuanced and we need to understand this.

Jamer Hunt, writing on Fast Co.Design, suggests that “we need a failure spectrum.” I believe this is a brilliant idea and it is one that I intend to explore further in a later post.

In the meantime, it is enough to say that we need to be able to identify when failure is (or at least can be) productive; when it is a sign that something is wrong and we should quit; and when preventative measures should be taken to avoid it.

Breeding success—a failure how to

All in all, this therefore begs the crucial question: How? How do we affirm failure correctly and effectively? How do we encourage perseverance and daring? How do we embrace failure and turn it into success?

That, my dear readers, is something for another day… Breeding success—a failure how to

And for those of you who like the research…

Hunt, J. (2011). Among six types of failure, only a few help you innovate. Fast Co.Design

McGrath, R.G. (1999). Falling forward: real options reasoning and entrepreneurial failure. Academy of Management Review, 24(1): 13-30.

Salter, C. (2007). Failure doesn’t suck. Fast Company

Sandage, S.A. (2012). Get back in the saddle. Times Higher Education

Ucbasaran, D., Shepherd, D., Lockett, A. & Lyon, J. (2012). Life after business failure: the process and consequences of business failure for entrepreneurs. CSME Working Paper.

Wylie, I. (2007). Failure is glorious. Fast Company


Special thanks must go to Scott Sandage whose article inspired this discovery into failure and from whose writing the title of this article was borrowed.