How Failure Breeds Success

Businessweek has a nice article about failure.

Granted, not all failures are praiseworthy. Some flops are just that: bad ideas. The eVilla, Sony Corp.'s (SNE ) $500 "Internet appliance." The Pontiac Aztek, General Motors Corp.'s (GM\ ) ugly duckling "crossover" SUV. For good measure, we'll throw in our own industry's spectacularly useless flop: the CueCat. A marketer's dream, the device, which was launched in 2000 (when else?), scanned bar codes from magazine and newspaper ads, directing readers to Web sites so they wouldn't have to go to the trouble to type in the URL.

But intelligent failures — those that happen early and inexpensively and that contribute new insights about your customers — should be more than just tolerable. They should be encouraged. "Figuring out how to master this process of failing fast and failing cheap and fumbling toward success is probably the most important thing companies have to get good at," says Scott Anthony, the managing director at consulting firm Innosight.

"Getting good" at failure, however, doesn't mean creating anarchy out of organization. It means leaders — not just on a podium at the annual meeting, but in the trenches, every day — who create an environment safe for taking risks and who share stories of their own mistakes. It means bringing in outsiders unattached to a project's past. It means carving out time to reflect on failure, not just success.

Several CEOs discuss their biggest failures as part of the article. That isn't something you see very often, so it's worth a read.

  • That is a good article, and the idea is one we’ve heard for years. I’ve heard it my entire career. It’s one of those things that sounds really good in theory but most managers and would-be leaders I’ve worked with will avoid even the smallest chance of failure in exchange for doing the same thing again and again. Sadly they’ll do this even when that thing isn’t working, keeping the failure they know rather than risking some new (presumably more horrible) new failure.

    This is probably human nature, and I’ve certainly struggled with it too. One of the ways I got over my rabid avoidance of failure was to assume that whatever we were trying was going to fail miserably and then ask “so what?” picturing the failure in my mind and working through it. Most of the time the answer to “so what?” is “we just try something else.” Not really such a big deal.

  • That is a good article, and the idea is one we’ve heard for years. I’ve heard it my entire career. It’s one of those things that sounds really good in theory but most managers and would-be leaders I’ve worked with will avoid even the smallest chance of failure in exchange for doing the same thing again and again. Sadly they’ll do this even when that thing isn’t working, keeping the failure they know rather than risking some new (presumably more horrible) new failure.

    This is probably human nature, and I’ve struggled with it too. One of the ways I got over my rabid avoidance of failure was to assume that whatever we were trying was going to fail miserably and then ask “so what?” picturing the failure in my mind and working through it. Most of the time the answer to “so what?” is “we just try something else.” Not really such a big deal.

  • I also have a very strong idea about failure and that includes the fact that you have a lot to learn from them, provided that they are not too many. Everyone needs failures for one good reason: to try to be the best and to let the others know that you are able to do more.