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Where once failure was the domain of losers, it’s now a cause célèbre, a hard-earned badge of redemption and authenticity. In ads for sneakers, athletes relish in how many times they missed the winning shot. In magazine articles, CEOs take pride in recounting their blunders, politicians and celebrities their lowest moments.

The benefits of failure shouldn’t be news to us. Toddlers develop into autonomous, well-functioning selves by testing boundaries. Fall over, pick yourself up, fall over with a little less pain the next time.

The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, and the benefits manifold. From preventing recurring mistakes to spurring innovation, to helping you find your true course to uncovering opportunities, it often begins with failure.

Yet for most of us mortals, this advice is still hard to take: Failure is painful. Disappointment cuts deep. And so much psychologically rests on being right, that denial and finger pointing remain our default responses.

Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor of management at the Columbia Business School, says that when she asks execs how effective their organizations are at learning from failure, on a scale of one to 10, “I often get a sheepish ‘two — or maybe three’ in response.”

Failure involves real costs: It wastes money, destroys morale, infuriates customers, damages reputations and can sometimes lead to legal trouble. For small-business owners, there is the legitimate risk that a major failure — choosing a wrong location, expanding to a new market or opting not to adopt new tech — could mean the end of their business.
Further, there’s a concern among many managers that a fear-no-failure culture will lead to an anything-goes environment for staff.

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As a result, despite all the good talk about failure, most businesses continue to do the opposite. They punish mistakes, shoot the messenger, deny errors, blame others, make no systematic effort to study it and basically ignore what failure has to teach them.

In doing so, they double down on their errant course of action, stifle risk-taking and create the very thing they are trying to avoid — a terminal misstep.

As the business world becomes more complex and uncertain, the issue is becoming more critical. In 2019, leading a business is not so much about good management, as it is about how you respond to new threats, new trends, new technologies. Nobody gets it right the first time anymore.

“It’s not about effective planning. It’s about trial and error,” Tim Harford writes in his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. “Those who can afford to fail more times will succeed in the long run,” he says.

There is a quote often attributed to the German statesman Otto von Bismarck that “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

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But recent research indicates it actually helps to know the hurt firsthand, for the resilience it builds and because like riding a bike, some things you can’t learn from a book or YouTube video.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure by Tim Harford

“All the advice tells you not to dwell on your mistakes, to not feel bad,” says Selin Malkoc, co-author of the study and a professor at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. “But we found the opposite. When faced with a failure, it is better to focus on one’s emotions — when people concentrate on how bad they feel and how they don’t want to experience these feelings again, they are more likely to try harder the next time.”

In the following pages, we provide tips to help you prepare for when things go wrong and to get the best out of situations when they do go awry.

There is, however, no way to take the pain out of failure. At times like that, it helps to take a philosophical view. On top of trying to tell yourself the feeling of disappointment is salutary, keep in mind that in some mysterious way, the possibility of failure is what makes games worth playing, business pursuing and ultimately life worth living.

When there is no challenge, the joy evaporates. (Try playing a video game designed for 4-year-olds, and see how long that stays fun!)

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The poet Rainer Maria Rilke summed it up nicely: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by ever greater things.”

In business, those challenges are waiting every day. Go down valiantly.

 

20 Ways to Make the Most of Failure

“Always learn from mistakes and failures,” notes Tavor White of Chews Happiness in Boulder, CO. “If one does so, they are not failures.” Too true. Here are 20 tips to help you turn those failures around.

Contain the downside

1 To be able to enjoy the benefits of failure, you’ve got to be able to survive the experience. Thus it’s best to fail small and cheaply. Always ask, “What is the minimum viable experiment?” says Roy H. Williams, author of The Wizard of Ads. It also helps to stick to areas where you have some related business experience. The business world is littered with the dead projects of companies that strayed too far from their core competence. Even a small failure can be expensive, but in the long run, ignorance tends to be even more costly.

Dig deep

2 When Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School, discusses failure with executives, she often asks them to consider her Spectrum of Reasons for Failure, which lists causes ranging from deliberate deviation to thoughtful experimentation. “When I ask executives to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually 2 percent to 5 percent. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70 to 90 percent. The consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.” To be sure, managers need to make a distinction between excusable and inexcusable mistakes, but often one can discover underlying causes that are more important. Was the cause carelessness, training, fatigue or another issue?

Fail differently

3 A crucial question to ask yourself about your mistakes is, “Am I failing differently each time?” says Steven Levitt, author of the business best-seller Freakonomics. For all our talk here about failure, what we are actually talking about is learning. Fail the same way over and over, and you’re clearly not learning.

KEEP Plans B, C and D on deck

4 “Expose yourself to lots of different ideas and try lots of different approaches on the grounds that failure is common,” says Harford in his book Adapt. “This approach is far less intimidating than trying to come up with the best idea ever. You need Plan B, Plan C, Plan D. ” Not only does a fallback position make it easier psychologically to be wrong, but it enables you to take away a wider range of lessons from each mistake, he says. Ideally, you want to try a mix of off-the-wall ideas and by-the-book practices.

WRITE DOWN YOUR FLOPS

5 Keep a failure résumé: When you fail, write it down. But instead of focusing on how that failure makes you feel, take the time to analyze the practical, operational reasons you failed. What’s the point of such self-flagellation? “Because honestly analyzing one’s failures can lead to the type of introspection that helps us grow — as well as show that the path to success isn’t a straight line,” says Tim Herrera in his Smarter Living column for the New York Times. It can also be a reminder of how much you’ve tried, said Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at Edinburgh Medical School. “Sometimes I look back on them and see how much I’ve actually struggled to be where I am,” she says.

FAIL FROM the front

6 The example set by owners and management is crucial. Admitting mistakes shows a leader’s self-confidence and helps forge closer ties with employees. “A blunder admitted is empathy earned,” write Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes in Whoever Makes the Most Mistakes Wins. “Leaders who don’t cover up their errors become people whom others can admire and identify with.”

Debrief

Rebel Talent: Why It Pays To Break The Rules At Work And In Life by Francesca Gino

7 When a business venture fails, sure, it sucks. But when a military expedition fails, people die. The life-or-death nature explains the military’s relentless review system, known as “after-action reviews” (AARs) of each combat encounter and combat-training exercise. “As in business, the reasons for success or failure in combat often are not clear,” writes behavioral scientist Francesca Gino, author of Rebel Talent. “AAR participants discuss four key questions: What did we set out to do? What actually happened? Why did it happen? What are we going to do next time?” To be sure, failure reviews aren’t much fun. Most people would rather sweep the little disaster under the carpet and look forward. But then the learning opportunity is lost. Such “reviews work best when they are fast and to the point; take place frequently, through good times and bad; and are forward-looking, with an emphasis on learning, not assigning blame,” write Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas in Increase Your Return on Failure.

If it ain’t broke, experiment

8 There’s a view that success doesn’t have much to teach you — you may have been lucky, it will cover up mistakes, it saps the will to innovate, it can make you overconfident and misattribute the real factors at play. But it doesn’t have to be that way, say Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano in an article in the Harvard Business Review. “Celebrate success but examine. Ironically, casting a critical eye on your success can better prepare you to avoid failure,” they write. Gino and Pisano say the right question for leaders of learning organizations to ask is not “What are we doing well?” but rather “What experiments are we running?” Keep looking at data even when things are going well — understanding why you’re successful is as important as understanding what causes mistakes.

Beware your biases

9 The human capacity for self-deception is profound. It thus helps to be aware of the kinds of biases that can undermine a proper evaluation of a project. Among the most common psychological blind spots related to failure are the “God complex” (feelings of infallibility), chasing your losses (taking bigger risks to win back lost money), or hedonic editing (when we try to convince ourselves that a mistake doesn’t matter, or finding some way to reinterpret our failures as successes). Few of us can make purely rational decisions. Beware of your biases.

Use symbolic rituals

10 Heroic Failure Awards, Failure Walls (a space in your back room where you and staff can share your “growth lessons”) or a Failure Hour (a weekly meeting devoted to things that went wrong and can be improved) can help create an environment in which failures are openly and seriously discussed. “Something magical happens to failure when it’s openly acknowledged,” writes business author Jeff Stibel in a column for Bizjournals.com. “Paradoxically, it becomes less of a big deal.”

Hail the bad-news messenger

11 “The biggest mistake you can make as a leader is to shoot the messenger and bury the bad news,” write Birkinshaw and Haas. “Big, painful, expensive failures are easy to spot. But in many organizations, any failure that can be hidden is hidden as long as it’s unlikely to cause immediate or obvious harm.” The goal should be to identify it early, before it has mushroomed into disaster. Among the ways to do this: creating a shared understanding around the types of failures that employees can expect to happen, being accessible as a leader both in terms of personality and physically, and rewarding the messenger who presents bad news.

Find a podcast

12 When things aren’t going well, there’s a fabulous world of inspiration out there: podcasts, YouTube commencement speeches, TED talks, School of Life videos. No end, really, of great people who have experienced what you’re going through and can provide reassurance or even tactical guidance. Designer Ida C. Benedetto told the Creative Independent she keeps a collection of such talks for when she needs a boost (petsplusmag.com/5192). Build your own list.

Share what you learn

13 While it’s useful to reflect on individual failures, the real payoff comes when the lessons are shared across the organization or even better, they become part of institutional memory. At Coca-Cola, stories about the failure of New Coke are still told 30 years on. Former CEO Roberto Goizueta got years of one-liners from the fiasco. “Admitting his mistake conveyed to his employees better than a hundred speeches or a thousand memos that ‘learning failures,’ even on a grand scale, were tolerated,” says Farson. Today, traditional soft drinks now account for less than two-thirds of Coke’s business. “They saw the handwriting on the wall, and they evolved into ready-to-drink teas and coffees and juices and dairy products. Coca-Cola knew it was time to reinvent themselves; to transform from one thing into another. This is why — after a continuing series of mistakes, failures, and course corrections — they will continue to thrive,” says Roy Williams.

Know HOW failure looks

14 Recognizing failure can be surprisingly difficult. We’ve been trained that “persistence pays off,” so it feels wrong to cut our losses and label an idea a failure. “Decide what success and failure would look like before you launch an initiative,” says Wharton Business School’s Rita Gunther McGrath, noting that some companies build exit strategies into their projects to ensure that doomed or resource-sucking efforts do not drag on. “Being able to recognize a failure just means that you’ll be able to re-cast it into something more likely to succeed,” Harford adds. In such instances, feedback — either in the form of data or third-party reviews — is essential for determining which experiments have succeeded and which have failed. “Get advice, not just from one person, but from several.”

Use checklists

The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande

15 In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande argues that in our complex modern world, failure results not so much from ignorance (not knowing enough about what works) as from ineptitude (not properly applying what we know works). His solution: checklists. In medicine, a field where the available well of learning expands every year, the problem is “making sure we apply the knowledge we have consistently and correctly,” says Gawande, a physician. A recent study in U.K. hospitals suggested that wider use of checklists might prevent 40 percent of deaths during treatment. If surgeons can fill out checklists, the rest of us should probably be willing to run our expertise by the numbers as well.

Give back the pen

16 It’s not just at the organizational level that failure can be “a gift.” Individuals, likely including your employees, can benefit from its didactic embrace. The problem is that many managers are what psychologists call “over-functioners” — faced with a challenge in the store, they spring into fixing mode, taking control, attacking the issue, offering instructions and dealing with it. As with raising kids, it often helps to let your underlings fail to allow them to develop, even if it creates some short-term anxiety or uncertainty. When a person is stuck or struggling, ask them, “What do you think you should do? Go try it and I’ll give you some ideas and then you see how it goes.”

You are not your failure

17 A lot of us look to athletes for inspiration, especially when it comes to taking on a daunting challenge. But according to British sports psychologist James Hamilton, many elite athletes have a pretty unhealthy view of success and failure, associating defeat with an all-round failure of the self. To be sure, it can fuel a heightened drive, leading them to put up with huge levels of discomfort and deprivation, but it can also result in risk-avoidance and self-blame when things don’t pan out as they had hoped. A much healthier view, he says, is to remember that any failure “stands separate” from you.

Celebrate intelligent failure

18 As 3M’s legendary chairman William McKnight once said, “The best and hardest work is done in the spirit of adventure and challenge. … Mistakes will be made.” A risk-averse culture, on the other hand, is dangerous. Once you quit innovating and become guardians of the status quo, the end is only a matter of time. “One division head I worked with would say to his team members during their performance reviews, ‘Show me your scrap heap,’” recalls Wharton’s Gunther McGrath. “The request perfectly conveys the idea that high achievers will, of necessity, try some things that don’t work out.” Tom Peters sums it up another way: “Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes.”

Educate your subconscious

19 The pioneering behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman changed the standard view that humans are rational economic actors. The Soviet Union proved something similar for economies — what looks to be efficient rationalization is often a system that can’t learn or adapt. It’s the same for just about any business. British advertising great David Ogilvy had an interesting take on this: “The beginning of greatness is to be different. And the beginning of failure is to be orthodox. Big ideas come from the unconscious. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process.” Go expose yourself to ideas and experiences.

Share your failures

20 Look for opportunities to share your mistakes, be it at a lunch, an industry peer group or some other professional gathering. “If you’re having lunch with some of your peers, then revealing failure is a great strategy to induce levels of liking by reducing malicious envy,” Amy Edmondson says. Adds Roy Williams: “When people share their experiences in an atmosphere of respect and mutual trust, a special kind of magic occurs: Smart people become wise, and their businesses begin to grow.”

FAILURE TEACHES THE BEST LESSONS

Pet pros share their flops … and how they bounced back.

Photos, Bad or Good, Make the Day

Angela Pantalone, Wag Central, Stratford, CT
3 One of my easiest epic fails to swallow is one that is reoccurring and that we poke fun at. We post a monthly calendar, and often the event of the day focuses on photos coming to owners via text. In our fun “wag speak,” we explain that we know that a pup may not cooperate with the turkey hat on his head or sitting nicely in a valentine photo booth. We send the epic-fail pictures as well as the perfect ones to keep things lighthearted and fun. Most of our clients say this makes their day.

Big-Box Lessons

Nancy Okun, Cats n Dogs, Port Charlotte, FL
3 I brought in a brand of cat food that’s sold in a big box. My thinking was the low price I got and the quality of the food, plus the well-known brand, would attract enough customers to make it profitable. Six months later, I’ve decided to discontinue this brand. I don’t consider this a failure. I look at it as more of a lesson learned that I shouldn’t bring in any brands a big box already stocks. The customers left for price, even though our prices were within pennies of each other. Mass advertising made a big difference. Now, when a brand goes big-box, we discontinue it and find a brand equal or better to replace it. And, we let our customers know what’s going on upfront. We tell the customer how much we value their loyalty and hope they will stay our customer.

Discontinued Chore

Jack Carey, Amoskeag Pet Supply, Manchester, NH
3 We tried having theme months. Like puppy month, cat month, etc. Initially, we were all excited to create the promotion and decorations for each month. After the first few months didn’t generate any interest for our customers, it became a chore and ultimately was discontinued. It did help us round out our departments’ offerings and promoted creativity.

Trust Your Instincts

Johnna Devereaux, Fetch RI, Richmond, RI
3 There is no such thing as a failure — just an opportunity to do something different (or make a different choice with newly learned information) next time. I remember bringing in a new collar line that I didn’t quite believe in. They were cute and of high quality, but my instinct told me they wouldn’t sell. I went against my gut … and ended up sitting on over $1,000 of inventory. The takeaway: Always trust your instincts. You know your consumer base better than anyone. Don’t ever let a salesperson change your mind. Lesson learned … and luckily at a relatively inexpensive price.

An Upside to the StoryWendy Megyese

Muttigans, Emerald Isle, NC
3 I decided to open a second location in 2018. I became enamored of another beach town that was an hour away. The emotional attachment overrode my logical decision-making, and I hunted until I found a site that was being constructed. I overlooked its drawbacks. All I saw was that it was near the beach and that I would be able to create the interior I wanted, rather than having to retrofit an existing structure. I signed a lease and paid the deposit — two months’ rent. As construction began, I started feeling queasy about my decision. It was keeping me awake at night, and I realized I was spending time trying to justify my action. It became clear that I had made the wrong choice. I contacted the real estate agent and told him I wanted to back out of the deal. I was fortunate that he allowed me to do so since the construction was not fully completed, but I forfeited my deposit. While the money was unrecoverable, I decided to mentally frame it as a very expensive lesson. A few months later, that area was devastated by Hurricane Florence. While the building I would have been in is still standing, most businesses there were closed for months. If there is any upside to the story, it is that I would have lost much more had I gone forward with my plans instead of admitting that I made a poor decision and backed out of it.

Chris Burslem is the group managing editor of SmartWork Media.

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