Business musings

Articles and thoughts about failure

24
Aug
Posted by Matt Stocker, stored in: Leadership  Strategic Planning  Technology & Web  

Earlier this month, I was contacted by Yisi Lu, a Masters student in MSc Marketing & Strategy at Warwick Business School. For her dissertation, Yisi is considering design thinking and, in particular, its role in education. She asked me some very interesting questions and I would love to share my answers with you today.

To explain a little of my own interest in design thinking…

I tend to live with one foot firmly in both business and design. For those of you who know me, you’ll know that my graduate studies first began at Coventry University where I completed the first year of an M/Des BSc in Industrial Product Design. While I love design, I gradually realised that what really interested me was the strategic management and business of design.  In 2001, I therefore transferred to Warwick Business School to study their BSc Hons in Management Sciences (now known as Management).

Both business and design remain my passions. Much of my spare time is spent reading technical and design blogs. An A3 pad is a firm fixture in my note-taking armoury and something with which clients will be familiar. I was privileged to attend the 2012 Design Summit earlier this year. I’m a strong advocate of the collaboration between the Design Council and WBS. And, on a lighter note, Debbie will happily recount times that she has lost me in a store only to find me looking at the construction of their shelves!

All in all, Debbie and I work hard to integrate design and business throughout our approach to consultancy. We believe that, particularly in this day and age, the two are firmly intertwined and an integrated approach offers much greater value than one or other alone.

Question One

What do you think is the essence of “design thinking” and how does it lead to better education?

For me, there is not one single thing that defines or is design thinking. Certainly, design thinking is about creation and it always involves a symbiotic relationship between problem and solution. However, part of the essence of design thinking is its synthesis of a multitude of elements; you could say that design thinking is many or all of the following things…

A solutions-based process. Creative. Iterative. Agile. Responsive. Holistic. Needs focused. User focused. Visual. It employs feedback loops, prototyping and testing. It involves creative synthesis. Design thinking holds all elements and ideas in creative tension before a solution emerges. It is about broadening out and narrowing down; zooming in and zooming out. Design thinking ‘stores’ work and solutions visually whilst they are in process to ensure that previous iterations can be referred back to, learned from, revised and improved. People who employ design thinking are not afraid of failure or mistakes—they will often do something deliberately ‘wrong’ to find what could be right; they accept that solutions rarely emerge ‘right first time’. Design thinking explores the whole system and encourages people to step outside of the ‘problem’ in order to discover whether the broader environment is the real source of the issue. It encourages people to look at the bigger picture. It handles complexity without drowning; synthesizes knowledge and understanding; and looks for patterns and links between non-related elements. It frequently employs ideas from other sources, cultures and disciplines. Design thinking is playful and curious. It actively involves people and stakeholders; it is a collaborative process that looks both out and in. Design thinking always demands a clear brief.

With regard to education, design thinking moves people away from a narrow view that is based on their existing knowledge and personal opinions, toward a more expansive, curious, multidisciplinary perspective. It allows people to create and form ideas and solutions in a more creative and flexible way. Design thinking encourages students to look at the world differently. It helps them to understand that, with a defined brief, it is almost always possible to discover an effective solution, even if that solution takes time and numerous ‘failed’ attempts. It moves students away from a linear, analytical, detail-oriented approach toward a more creative, open perspective—away from believing “We first need to know everything about this problem to find an answer” to asking “How do we create a solution, even in the midst of ambiguity?” For me, this is more representative of situations within real-life organisations: often problems and solutions emerge together; the implementation of interventions informs both a further understanding of the problem and its solution; more often than not problems and solutions are continually being worked on in parallel. Design thinking enables students to better listen and engage with those around them. It teaches them to be creative in thought: by learning how to visually represent thoughts and ideas, students add another dimension to their problem solving approach. Many problems, models and ideas are not linear and do not lend themselves to being defined with the lined notepaper approach. Similarly, complex situations often involve many interdependent problems that cannot be solved individually. Use of visual tools enables a shared understanding to be created; it draws people together to debate and create solutions or outcomes that otherwise would remain opaque and poorly understood.

If I had to sum it up more succinctly, design thinking in education is about equipping students with an array of tools that enable them to deal much more effectively with complex situations; teaching them to embrace curiosity and failure; and opening their minds to new ways of thinking and doing.

Question Two

What do you think is the nature of a design thinking process?

There are many potential processes and theories that could be used to define the nature of the design thinking process; however, to get to hung up on defining the process itself is to miss the point.

A design thinking process is about creation. Making and doing. Testing and breaking. Seeing and responding.

Designers have done it for centuries. It starts with an idea, a brief, a desired outcome. The designer then starts to create and, in order to do so, they must pull together ideas and get a better understanding of the challenges that stand in their way. They must implement ideas to see if they work and, also, to discover if they and others like them.

The designer is happy with uncertainty because the process of creation is often messy, unpredictable and, at times, frustrating. However, they drive through towards their goal. They like an idea but then find it doesn’t work. They do more research; they look at other options; they push boundaries. The designer turns around and examines those problems that stand in their way—they look at them from a different perspective; they need to find out if the problems vanish or change when viewed from a different standpoint.

During the process, the designer will sometimes work on their own; at other times, they will open up the process to others—to users, to staff, to colleagues, to the people around them.

Sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly, the designer will arrive at a solution, the end outcome. The solution may be an amalgamation of a number of ideas. Sometimes, a single moment of insight may finally bring the answer.

And yet, however good the outcome, however great, it could be better. The designer may need materials or technology to catch up with what is in their mind’s eye—their ideas are not yet possible with today’s tools. Or, they may learn everything they should do or should have done differently once their completed piece ends up in the marketplace.

All in all, the design thinking process is about a journey from start to finish; from problem to solution; from idea to implementation. But this journey is not linear. It is iterative, recursive and looping. It could take hours or it could take years. But it is always a journey toward a desired objective, travelled with grit, determination and an open mind.

Question Three

What do you think is the best way for universities to teach design? (Should design schools create more business-focused creatives, or should business schools foster creative thinking in their MBAs?)

Ultimately, design thinking is about creation—of ideas, of products, of solutions, of outcomes. And yet, much of the university or business school approach is about the opposite—breaking things down, taking them apart, analysing, critiquing. Always the critic, never the creator.

I am a strong advocate of critical thinking and would never negate its value. However, while theoretical and case-based learning are a vital part of the business school education, I have noticed that students are often not very good at creating. There is a disconnect between their role and that of others—creating is left to ‘the creatives’. Students have rarely experienced the design process for themselves. Few students have ever created a brand; designed a website; designed or created a product, service or a building; created something out of nothing. And yet, in business, the only way that an organisation exists and survives is if it actually creates value; creates a product or a service; creates a market; creates demand. We teach students how to get the most out of what they have but never really to create something new. We leave that to chance, hoping that their innate creativity and drive will enable them to do this on their own. In this sense, we let both our students and their future employers down.

Design schools themselves are however often no better. They teach their students how to create but not how to truly exploit their creations. Creatives and designers can often be left floundering in a business world they do not really understand. They lack the management skills to bring their creations to life and to capitalise upon the value they know their creations contain. They do not know how to build a business structure around their creative process.

The obvious solution would be to bring business people and creatives together. However, with both failing to understand the other, tension begins to emerge. Designers and creatives are reluctant to relinquish business control for fear of what will happen to their creative direction; business people are unable to truly support a creative process they do not fully understand.

This is compounded by the fact that neither business nor design schools teach their students how to manage others in the creation/design process and how to get the best out of those who may ultimately work for them. Gerry McGovern (Design Director of Land Rover) has strong views on this and believes that nobody teaches either business people or designers how to manage other designers and creatives to get the best out of the creative process. Similarly, creatives are rarely taught how to manage their commercial employees to best capitalise upon their creative ideas.

So, in the middle exists this divide. With business people having little or no design, creative and visual literacy, and designers having little or no business literacy, there is a missed opportunity to create real value.

Thinking about organisational ambidexterity, it seems that we find ourselves in a situation in which design schools are teaching their students to explore, whilst business schools are teaching their students to exploit. In reality, as is the case in organisations, students must have the ability to do both—to explore and exploit—for real, long-term value to be released.

Ultimately, I believe it is the responsibility of both design schools and business schools to bridge this divide. Business schools should be embracing design thinking across their programmes, not only at MBA level, but also within their Undergraduate and Masters courses. Design schools should similarly be teaching their students (at all levels) about the commercialisation process and how to exploit the value within their creations.

Question Four

What do you think is the future of design thinking?

I believe there is a strong future for design thinking. With the recent and continuing economic environment, along with the diminished reputations of those who helped create it, the analytical approach has been shown to have significant weaknesses when it comes to solving global issues and discovering appropriate answers. As a result, we are seeing a move toward different approaches, both in how to create real value and also in solving problems. The Singularity University is one such example of how to embrace a multidisciplinary, creative approach. Although design thinking is certainly not the only alternative approach, I believe it is gaining increasing awareness, in part through those higher educational establishments that teach it.

Interestingly, within consultancy, clients also seem to be realising the limitations of the analytical approach and are increasingly resistant to, and jaded by, consultancies that charge high fees, do a lot of analysis, but, at the end of the day, fail to deliver effective solutions and outcomes that create real, practical value where it matters, on the ground. As a result, clients seem to be particularly open to value-based pricing, where the outcomes are clear and the costs are fixed. We ourselves have found that such an approach is hugely effective in facilitating design thinking and a solutions-led approach. As the objectives are clearly defined (the brief), along with measures of success and the value that the outcomes will bring, there is a clarity that rarely exists otherwise. There is also significant flexibility to embrace the complexity and creativity needed to solve the trickiest problems, without worrying about day rates or utilisation. The end outcome: fair compensation for the consultant and a great outcome for the client.

Similarly, in our own experience, design thinking opens up solutions to a multitude of problems that seem intractable with traditional business approaches. Visual problem solving and creative thinking enables simplicity to emerge beyond complexity and solutions to be found.

Moreover, while scientific and theoretical breakthroughs will continue to drive change, many of the most influential breakthroughs of the last century have been design-oriented in nature. Think the automobile, the home computer, mobile phones, the iPod, iPad, and more. Design is literally changing our lives, the way we think and the way we live. Many of the most influential and successful businesses in the world today have, at their heart, design. Their success is not due to either design or business alone but a healthy symbiosis of the two. People are increasingly recognising the power of design and embracing its success. This year alone within Britain, the Design Council hosted the Design Summit 2012; The Founders Forum hosted the Creative Industries reception; the British Business Embassy hosted the Global Business Summit (focused on creative services); various UK Trade & Investment regions hosted Creative Services Summits; the Olympics showcased British creativity and design; and MADE Entrepreneur Festival is focusing on businesses made in Britain, many of which are creative. There seems to be an increasing move toward supporting creative and design-led businesses and design thinking is fundamental to this future.

That said, for design thinking to be truly embraced in academia, I believe there needs to be a change in attitudes. Design thinking by its very nature is often very accessible and can be easily embraced by the populace. It also tends to dislike words. Historically, academia has tended to shun that which appears simplistic, even if at its heart it is rooted in research and grounded in experience. Similarly, design itself has not traditionally had a strong relationship with peer-reviewed journals nor has it taught or encouraged a critical, scientific approach. Gradually both sides of this situation are changing and multidisciplinary approaches are being embraced but such change will need to continue if there is to be a true meeting of minds between business and design.

21
May
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

 

18
May
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

Acknowledgements…

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.