Fail Successfully

As a child, you were constantly failing. You formed words in your mouth, which instead came out as sounds. Those failed words were music to your parent’s ears. You fell hundreds of times as you attempted to walk. You crashed your bike as you began to ride. You made cacophony instead of melody as you learned to play the piano. From all of these failed experiences, you were learning. If you quit because of these failures, you would have remained silent, never learned to ride a bike or play the piano.

What were the conditions that allowed you to find success from these failures to learn, grow and develop? Your parents or guardians most likely encouraged you when you were learning to walk, especially when you fell. They kept talking to you when you were making sounds instead of words. They motivated you to get back on your bike after you skinned your knee. They applauded your staccato rendition of your favorite song at your first piano recital.

As we get older, many of us have learned to do what it takes to get rewards for good behavior and avoid punishment from mistakes. Consequently, many gain a sense of satisfaction when they are praised, and shame for reprimands. Much of an individuals self worth may come from the acceptance and reward they receive. As children grow through adolescence they become less and less willing to take risks, which might lead to embarrassing attention. In our middle and high school classrooms, fewer students raise their hands, for fear of being wrong.

I remember being in Mrs. Martin’s 12th grade honors English class 34 years ago. We would read books like the Heart of DarknessWalden and other fun reads. Mrs. Martin would ask questions and rarely got answers. I was a fairly smart kid, and the son of an English teacher. I often knew the answers to her questions. However, I would not raise my hand. Instead, I would answer under my breath, just loud enough for some kids around me to hear. This happened often enough that the kids around me started to laugh when Mrs. Martin gave the same answer I had just muttered. Eventually she asked why the kids were laughing and they said, “Spencer always has the answer.” So now she deliberately called on me. In those moments, however, I never seemed to have the answer.

I struggled to get a good grade from Mrs. Martin. When I complained to my mother, also an English teacher, she told me I just needed to work harder. I had a paper due on Thoreau’s Walden. I told my mom it was not worth it to try, I would just get a bad score. My wonderful mother decided to teach me a lesson that a good grade was possible and wrote my paper. (The only time she had ever done this.) She, and I, received a C+. She was so furious; she told me she was going to talk to the teacher. Instead of making a kerfuffle, I wanted to avoid embarrassment and further humiliation so I dropped the class. I had what Psychologist Carol Dweck calls, a fixed mindset. If I had what she also calls, a growth mindset, I may have been more willing to learn from my mistakes. Instead, I avoided the learning opportunities afforded me in her class and just rested on the fact that I didn’t need another English credit to graduate. I settled for avoiding discomfort and protecting my ego.

I’m sure I am not the only one that has had a fixed mindset at some point. As we mature, many of us participate less and less in successful failure. Many avoid situations, which may lead to failure in their lives and in their businesses. In my business, I see many people who are unwilling to change habits and patterns. They are afraid of getting feedback that does not reinforce a positive self-image. Feedback can be a valuable tool to help us improve. Instead, we label it as unjustified criticism to protect our ego and need to be right.

Some of us have behavioral characteristics that are more disposed to avoid failure. Some people have a bias for perfectionism. This may cause them to delay action because they fear making mistakes. Other people may be very demanding. They focus on task, and minimize relationships. These demanding and critical leaders shut down innovation and, may take few risks themselves to avoid their own medicine. Others dislike confrontation, or difficult situations, so they avoid them. Still others are so focused on being right, they may not be willing to risk being wrong in order to learn. Click here to request our powerful assessment to identify your behavioral characteristics. When we send you our link, the process only takes 5-10 minutes.

In business, we have management processes whose entire existence is to eliminate or mitigate risk. Project Managers manage risks of various types such as technical risks, monetary risks, and scheduling-based risks. The International Organization for Standardization, created standards relating to risk management known as ISO 31000. These standards create systems and processes designed to reduce risks. However, they may also create a bias against taking risks. This risk aversion can permeate organizational cultures and stifle growth.

I do not suggest recklessly taking risks or accepting failure. Instead I suggest developing a culture of innovation and growth. The marketplace is changing so often and so rapidly, it is impossible to succeed with the status quo. According to a recent HBR article, “Increase Your Return on Failure,” one of the biggest reasons companies fail to grow is a fear of failure. The authors, Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Hass, cite a Boston Consulting Group survey, which identifies 31% of respondents identified a risk-averse culture as a key obstacle to innovation.

The solution? Foster a culture where “Fail Fast,” “Fail Often,” and “Fail Forward” is embraced.

  1. Fail Fast:

    Use failure as a call to action; to improve, to learn. Be willing to avoid complacency and take action. Avoid perfectionism and analysis paralysis. Set parameters for experimentation and innovation. Edison and his team learned 10,000 ways a light bulb doesn’t work. Their process of experimentation led to success.

  2. Fail Often:

    Focus on what you can control. Lon Kruger, Head basketball coach at Oklahoma is a great teacher. He wants to win, like most of the people on his staff and his team. He teaches the athletes to pay less attention to the final score and more attention to their individual effort. Did you dive for every loose ball? Did you do what it takes to win the rebound battle? Did you do your best? Coach Kruger stresses that when we continually do our best, the scoreboard will eventually reflect our effort.

    Avoid complacency. The environment is constantly changing. What worked last year, last month, last week, yesterday, may not work today. Continually look for ways to improve and innovate. That requires being willing to accept some risk and failure. Click here to watch a short video of a Japanese entrepreneur who embraces fail often.

  3. Fail Forward:

    Change your approach. Avoid the victim mentality. When things don’t work out the way you planned, change your approach and move past it.

    Learn to appreciate feedback. If you have a fixed mindset, this can be very difficult. I have learned to ask myself, “is there truth to what they are saying, or wisdom in their perspective?” I needed to learn that their perspective was valid to them. When I dismissed feedback as inaccurate, I would do nothing new, or different, and would stay stuck in my behavior.

    Learn from every failure. It is not easy to take time and look in the mirror about what went wrong. Sports teams have made a science of this. They study video images to see what went wrong so they can identify what to do differently. I regularly watch and listen to myself giving presentations. It is painful, to be sure, because I see all my weaknesses exposed. But, this is a great opportunity to improve my craft.

    We are currently experimenting with google adwords to help grow our business. We have set aside a small budget to experiment with. We want to learn what works and what doesn’t. We have created multiple ads to track responses. The ones that perform poorly are replaced. The ones that perform well are given more investment. We are learning from failure and success. Both are valuable. After a month of this process, we have a strategy we are confident will work. We will then commit a larger budget to a winning strategy.

    Learn from your mistakes and mistakes of others. Gather new information and data continuously. Then share what you learn. This will let people know you are serious about learning. By avoiding talking about mistakes, you send a message that failure is not acceptable. Encourage others to share their mistakes and lessons learned.

To quote Pixar president, Ed Catmull, “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil, they aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new and should be seen as valuable.” Your focused and deliberate efforts to create a culture that encourages successful failure will pay dividends.

The author Spencer Horn is the President of Spencer Horn Solutions, LLC. For additional topics read: Sick And Tired of Being Sick And TiredHow To Get Your People To Change TodayThe Power of AccountabilityHow To Defeat The ‘Fog of War’ In Business

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