How Failure Could Be the Secret to Your Success

How Failure Could Be the Secret to Your Success
Page content

Failure can be valuable for any business, but let’s be honest: It sucks. No one walks away from watching a grand idea fizzle into nothing and opens a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

If you follow the urge to avoid failure altogether, you’ll miss out on opportunities to learn, grow, and develop your exciting, creative ideas that can succeed. Leaders need to accept (and embrace) failure as a vital brick in the road to success. Each failed endeavor should serve as a step forward, but for that to happen, you must fail differently as you progress.

So how do you fail differently?

1. Fail Small

Often, organizations invest too much too fast and end up with a full-blown, highly expensive prototype on their hands. Then, when the experiment fails, they have lost huge amounts of time and money — and often a great deal of respect.

However, if you fail small and handle it well, it can turn into something that actually accelerates growth. Take Boeing, for example. In the early ’90s, it built a new Air Force plane test bed (literally a flying prototype) called the “Bird of Prey.”

The total program cost $69 million. This may sound expensive, but to put it in perspective, a single F35 Joint Strike Fighter can cost up to $299 million, and the lifetime operating cost is anticipated to be more than $750 million. In comparison, this was a small endeavor.

This one program generated a wide range of technology that has transformed both military and commercial aviation. The Bird of Prey shows us that when you start small, you avoid getting in over your head if your project fails, and you can use it as a launching pad for more ideas if it succeeds.

2. Fail Fast

Bill Gates once told his employees to “fail forward fast.” By that, Gates meant they had to rapidly experiment and test their thinking so Microsoft could improve its solutions and bring them to market as quickly as possible.

In short: Rapid test cycles equal more opportunities to correct as you go.

Design, build and test your experiments as quickly as possible, and run multiple experiments simultaneously. By keeping the cost and complexity low, it’s easier to learn quickly. This also enables you to rapidly test the same assumption with multiple audiences or answer a single question from multiple perspectives.

3. Fail Cheap

It is easier to spend less money when you’re quickly moving through a testing phase, but if you don’t put specific restrictions on experiments, you could end up paying much more than you initially planned.

When the design powerhouse IDEO tests ideas with its clients, it caps the first experiments at a $10 price tag. That’s only about three froufrou drinks at Starbucks, but lower initial costs mean lower and more palatable costs of failure.

4. Fail Simply

In a design experiment, try to answer only one question or test a single assumption about the merit of your idea. Approach the situation like a scientist — isolate the problem so you get clear results of success or failure.

Be clear about your solution. Visualize it, and express it in a way that invites others to interact with it. If it fails, you have a strong frame of reference to pinpoint what needs to change and where.

In addition, aim to test desirability first and feasibility and viability later. If you fail to build a desirable solution, it won’t matter how well you can build it or whether you can control the COGS. A dud is a dud no matter how well built and cost-competitive it is.

5. Fail and Move On

The benefit of failing small, fast, cheap, and simply is that when the stakes are low, it’s easier to abandon concepts that just are not working. One of the great challenges of creating something new is learning how to combat a cognitive bias called “loss aversion.”

Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky first described loss aversion as people’s strong tendency to avoid losses — even when they won’t yield any measurable benefits from doing so. However, by discovering whether something works sooner, it’s easier to drop a bad solution and move on to rapidly testing another.

Companies in all industries should perform many aspects the same, but failing is not one of them. If you embrace failure and learn how to leverage it as a tool for success, you will be different. After all, you’re going to fail eventually, so fail differently, stand out and learn from your mistakes.

About the Author

Andrew (Drew) Marshall is the principal of Primed Associates, an innovation consultancy. He’s a co-host of a weekly innovation-focused Twitter chat, #innochat; the founder, host, and producer of Ignite Princeton; and a contributor to the Innovation Excellence blog.