Breeding success—a failure how to
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