Have you ever failed?
Do you regard yourself as a failure?
Have you ever monumentally failed or failed at anything and were deeply embarrassed about it?
If you didn’t answer yes to any of the questions then we need to talk. It’s worth putting down that magic wand, take five minutes away from perfection and read on. If you answered yes each and every time then well done but perhaps it’s also worth reading on too.
A quick definition search of the word failure will find something like “a lack of success in doing or achieving something” pop up on your screen. So why is it then when people fail we look down on them and avoid them at all costs? Why do we manipulate our children’s lives to avoid failure at all costs? How will that prepare them for life or perhaps starting their own business in years to come?
Sir Richard Branson, the darling of entrepreneurialism has a long list of failures to his name. Remember Virgin Coke, Virgin Cars, Virgin Brides or Virgin Express? So, do you label him as a failure, shun him and put him on the naughty step? In reality, he has a really healthy and positive attitude to failure that supports learning from it and moving forward. Incidentally, he states that it stems from parental advice and support. We can learn a lot from his positive attitude to mistakes and failure in general. Elon Musk, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, Edison, Dyson; all failures who dusted themselves down and went on to great success.
Now you may be reading this and nodding to yourself convinced you know this and that its part of your everyday life. But how often do you build opportunities for people in your team to learn from their own failure? I once had an interesting “debate” with a recruiter who was determined that all failure was wrong and had no place in business or an organisation. I disagreed rather vigorously. I believe we can build situations and scenarios where people have an opportunity to take risks, try something beyond their current capabilities and allow for the possibility of failure. The rewards for success are magnified and the lessons from failure are invaluable.
I have worked with numerous organisations that have a formal “lessons learned” processes where the output forms little or no input to the planning of new ventures or projects. I am no longer surprised by this revelation and continue to ask why this would be the case. Despite this, these organisations are a step ahead of those that never reflect on failures or successes but what is it in our psyche that prevents us from opening that door to failure?
I’ve discussed the concept of failure with many entrepreneurs over several years and the response has been relatively consistent and unfortunately unchanging. We have a much more negative response to failure in the UK compared to the USA. This is prevalent throughout government, media, investors and academia. To comparable organisations in the USA, failure is inherent in leading to business success. It’s simply part of the journey.
I was fortunate to sit through a lecture by Tal Ben-Shahar, who at the time was delivering the most popular course Harvard University had ever seen. He had a refreshing view on failure and perhaps not unsurprising based on his background. He believed failure was an inescapable part of life and left me with my favourite and most over used phrase “Learn to fail or fail to learn”. Ten years later and I have quoted him many times. It has become a mantra.
Returning to my original questions, perhaps the one “yes” I may challenge is the person who regarded themselves as a failure. To fail doesn’t mean you are a failure. To fail and to learn from it is a pathway to success. To fall over and stand up again is success. To fail, hide your shame, ostracise yourself and keep your head down, well perhaps you need to work out how to move forward.
So what can we do to make failure a key part of success? Here are some of my suggestions but I would love to hear yours.
- Build a learning culture – It sounds obvious but really it isn’t. Ask yourself what do you do in your business to really capture failure, learn from it and ensure it is a key part of every new initiative in your organisation.
- Fail Safe – Are there opportunities for people to fail in a safe way? Clearly this is a sensitive area but there will be ways that subordinates can stretch their abilities and potentially fail without damaging the organisation or its customers. What they learn from this is vital and invaluable.
- Accept, understand and analyse failure – If failure happens then don’t hide it. Seek to understand why it happened. Don’t ostracise the individual. Make it a key part of the learning that people understand exactly why the failure happened. Perhaps this is where academia etc. can support us most by accepting it into our culture.
- Accept innovation often brings failure – We love innovative people and the goods and services they bring to enrich our lives. Accept and remember that much of what they do now was built on a pyramid of failure.
- Purple Hearts – In America every soldier wounded in conflict is awarded a purple heart. They know the pain that preceded that award and are respected for their courage. Pin a virtual purple heart on your business colleague whose latest venture has not gone the way they wanted, dust them down and thank them for their service.