The Idea:  Success is a terrible teacher.   One may meet their personal goals, but success is rarely a catalyst for growth, it come through failure.  It is that simple.  A survey conducted by Boston Consulting Group showed that 31% of respondents have a fear of risk which can lead to lack of innovation for a company. Today that’s the same as failure.  There is huge value to be found in failure, but only if one learns to embrace it fully.

A hundred years ago, the lifespan of a S&P 500 Company was sixty-seven years. Today it is fifteen years.  Marketplace evolution is inevitable – and as is the nature of most things, failing to evolve with the market will result in extinction.  Are you willing to embrace risk and learn from it?

In a recent Harvard Business Review articled by Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas, the authors detailed ideas on extracting ultimate value from failure, improving one’s return on failure.  Understanding this concept means confronting head on our deepest fears about failure.  Pixar’s president Ed Catmull reminds us, “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil… They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new.”

We all experience growing pains, friction and defeats.  Discomfort is the sign of expansion; walking on new ground and is vital to long term growth.  It’s one of the traits of companies that live longer than fifteen years.

So how do we embrace the growing pains and increase Return on Failure?

  1. Learn.  Failure is inherently ugly. But the more you are willing to look closely at the situation and capture the lessons learned, the more likely you won’t fail in a similar manner again.  This type of assessing may answer questions that you may not have even been aware of, such as: did we have the right people on the project?  Were we fully prepared?  Did we underestimate competition?  Does your culture formally (and honestly) conduct lessons learned and self-critique after a project?  

  2. Share.  The authors propose conducting self-critiques in a team environment to ensure that the lessons learned are shared broadly and openly with peers.  They suggested that all self-critique be fast, frequent, and forward-looking.  In other words, a “Triple F-Critique.”   The launch of “New Coke” is an example of an effective Triple F Critique.  Thirty years ago, Coke took a risk, failed, relaunched their base brand and eventually stole market share from competitors.  Are you brave enough to not bury your failures?

  3. Review.  “Take a bird’s eye view” and ask yourself if the way that you are approaching your learning is working and will it help both you and your organization improve outcomes.  Each time, ask yourself the following question: “Do we have a process in place for making decisions that statistically minimizes failure and allows the team to gather new learnings?”

Scientist and inventor Edwin Land once stated “An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.” Mistakes, misfortunes and errors take you to a place of discovery.  

What one thing are you doing today that frightens you?