Why do so many business leaders tout the benefits of failure? To listen to some of these motivational and inspirational words of wisdom you’d think that a couple of trips through bankruptcy is as prestigious as a Nobel Peace Prize. If you step back and think about it, embracing failure is akin to leaning into a left hook to the side of your face. Logic tells us it just doesn’t make sense, there cannot be nobility in failure, only misery.
The idea that failure somehow transforms losers into winners cannot be studied from the superficial level of casual observation, or more specifically cynical evaluation. I admit I am a cynic, doubting Thomas, if you will, so therefore my observations are skewed toward the skeptical side of the Bell curve. This doubting nature causes me to seek out the observations of those who have left the requisite proof that a couple punches to the gut can create a champion.
The contradiction we have to resolve is that while success is what we strive for, our ultimate goal, without failure it creates a business learning vacuum. A place where the consequences of inherent imperfection simply gathers like water behind a dam, applying enormous pressure and force on the foundational support. And the key phrase is inherent imperfection, a systemic defect that supports the position of its not if we fail, but when. So if failure is indisputably a given, because of our humanness, then the creative and innovative business leader will use it as a means to an end. Literally harnessing the energy of failure to power the engine of success.
We must have the experience of failure to know when change is necessary because it is only through change that we can foster a culture of success. Long term success.
When Thomas Watson Sr., the man who built IBM into a global powerhouse long before the digital age was even a dream, said “If you want to succeed quickly, double your failure rate,” he wasn’t advocating incompetence. He was recognizing the power of change, inquisitive nature of the individual, and our desire to win. More failures mean we are actively moving forward and facing the competitive nature of business proactively rather than accepting the status quo and thus beginning the slide toward irrelevance.
But the logic of encouraging a culture of failure presents a conflict for us emotionally. Failure is painful and can be costly. Remember the pain of failure when learning to ride a bike? For both the child and the parent it can be a terribly painful experience as knees, elbows and limbs are scrapped, cut and even cracked. Yet, few kids simply quit after a fall. They make attempt after attempt, always surviving and knowing more afterward then before, until they master an act never forgotten.
The parent’s role in teaching a child to ride a bike is to set the proper expectations and they would be negligent to give the impression that failure is not possible. They would be equally negligent if they admonished their child for falling or crashing into a tree or two. As a business leader you must also be benevolent in the the same way by creating a culture where it’s acceptable to take risk in an effort to move forward and there is no penalty for the attempt. You are the parent running behind the child holding on to the bike until it’s time for you to let go.
The traditional business mindset is to punish and penalize for failure. In a company, this breeds fear and stagnation. As people who must work for a living, your employees fear making a mistake, so naturally their instinct for self-preservation prevents experimentation or embracing risk. In order to truly create a dynamic success story, you must first free yourself and your team from fear of failure. Create an atmosphere where failure is accepted and viewed as a positive step toward ultimate success. When you give people the freedom to fail, you are also giving them the freedom to succeed.
But let’s make sure we distinguish between the two types of failure – unproductive failure versus productive failure. Failure as the result of incompetence, apathy, sloppiness, and lack of effort is clearly unproductive. This obviously cannot be encouraged or tolerated. In fact, eliminating individuals who continuously produce unproductive failures is important in building the right employee morale. At my company I discovered that one of the biggest complaints from dedicated employees was of fellow employees who wasted time, made too many unnecessary mistakes, and held negative attitudes. These people created a non-motivating atmosphere and adversely affected employee morale.
Productive failures are the result of trying something new, stepping out of one’s comfort zone in a sincere effort to be innovative, accepting of change, and pursuing success. These employees deserve proper recognition and given a forum in which to express themselves relative to professional growth.
By expecting to fail, we accomplish two very important objectives: First, we are willing to embrace risking failure by doing something to keep our company moving forward rather than avoiding risk and doing nothing. Success can only be accomplished by doing. Second, we set the proper mental expectation – plan for the best but prepare for the worst. This is not a defeatist attitude. Rather, it gives you the opportunity to prepare for recovery and the willingness to make another attempt.
The response to the question I posed at the start of this article is a counterintuitive answer. We don’t necessarily learn from success. Success without failure leaves us with no basis for change and without change a business cannot continue to be successful. When things are “going good” the fear of loss engages and humans instinctively begin to play not to lose, which means no more risk. Why? Because they fear failure and to change is to invite failure.
If, as the saying goes, success leaves clues, then the clues left behind by America’s greatest innovator, Thomas Edison, are obvious. His 10,000 failures resulted in some of the most disruptive innovations in the history of mankind. He summed it up this way; “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”