Henry Petroski, in his 2006 book Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design, makes the argument that true success is predicated on failure. In other words, it is essential to fail in order to succeed.
This can be troubling.
This is especially troubling to those of us who have been nurtured on success stories and the philosophy of striving for perfection. While we will pay lip service to the pat homilies about learning from failure, the truth is that for many of us failing sucks.
Success breeds failure
What really struck me in Petroski’s book, however, is the phenomenon that building on success to the degree that complacency and a loss of respect for what allowed for success eventually can lead to catastrophic failure.
Building on prior successes to the exclusion of failures is dangerous. Just because it worked in the past is no guarantee that it will work on a larger scale, or in a different environment, or in conjunction with other elements. And this is just as applicable to business processes and operations as it is with bridges and skyscrapers.
What a novel idea!
Not necessarily. Many times in a business environment there is the opportunity to innovate and create systems or new initiatives that appear to be truly “new”. We’ve never done this before and it promises to be a boon to the bottom line/profit margin/stock value/market share, etc.
But, as the authors of another great book, BusinessThink, point out, it pays to ask why something that sounds so good hasn’t already been done?
It could be that there simply wasn’t the budget, the political will, or resources to do so. But, just as likely, it was already tried and it didn’t work. Unless you are willing to learn from and build upon these prior “failures” you may well be setting you and your company up for an even more spectacular failure.
Don’t do it!
This is the other extreme of the pendulum: fear of failure. But, as English biologist T. H. Huxley said, “There is the greatest practical benefit in making a few failures early in life.” Which, in a business life, can simply mean that failure is not always fatal (it rarely is) and that without the knowledge, experience, and analysis that can (or should) come from going through a failed effort future success is less likely.
It is ironic and sad, even, that the intrepid entrepreneur that faced the unknown, the challenges, and the failures of starting and building a viable enterprise can one day become the staid and cautious business owner. The bold innovator has now become a mere “shopkeeper”.
Shopkeepers maintain the status quo and avoid doing anything that might endanger the health and profitability of the business. Shopkeepers eschew innovation for fear that something may not work. Shopkeepers resist change even at the detriment of the business.
Don’t be a shopkeeper.
Failing in order to succeed
The bottom line is that in order to advance your business, improve your operations, innovate your systems, succeed with your company culture, you must make mistakes. As a coaching client said to me just this morning while describing her office manager, “She doesn’t make the same mistake twice.”
Mistakes, or failures, are opportunities. Make the most of them. Have a strategic approach and process for analyzing and learning from them. As Kym Illman relates in his book The Future Is Customer Service mistakes, problems – failures – are inevitable in a growing, moving, thriving business. And he welcomes them, especially issues with customers, because he believes that mistakes are opportunities to shine and make his customers even more loyal.
And this can apply across the board. Expect failure and then jump in to leverage and capitalize on the opportunity it offers.