“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” – Henry Ford
Living in rural Maine, I was a pretty scrappy kid. From the time I was 3, convinced I was the next great superhero, I’d race to the woods, don my cape, climb to the top of a rock and will myself to fly. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I never managed to reach liftoff. But, like any superhero, I didn’t give up. Instead, I found different ways to wield special powers as I moved forward in life.
Even at a young age, I operated with the mindset that failure was OK. It was OK that I couldn’t figure out how to fly. It was OK that I never quieted that inner fire that dared me to find the next grand adventure, even when sometimes it didn’t turn out the way I pictured.
I’ve inevitably subscribed to a life of intentional, meaningful failure. My path to success is marked by my willingness to walk that fine line of failure, disaster, chaos and, yes, fear. And to be truthful, there have been moments when it was hard to summon the courage to move towards the edge.
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But I found a way to welcome extraordinary challenges—whether that was becoming a published author despite my debilitating struggles with dyslexia, starting 19 companies (Trilix makes No. 19!), or summiting Kilimanjaro. This approach to life has led to some of my most significant accomplishments to date. But that’s not to say I haven’t met my fair share of roadblocks and failures along the way that took my breath away and knocked me off feet.
At my core, I believe that the key to success is failure.
The Continuum of Failure
When we think of failure, it can make us a bit uneasy. Typically, failure means something went wrong: we lost the game, the sales deal went sideways, we made a critical accounting mistake. As a leader, the knee-jerk reaction is to become emotionally hijacked (we have all been there). We try to ignore it; we may yell, criticize or place blame. We may start to cast doubt on whether our employee was in the wrong. We may even wonder if this mistake is worthy of grave consequence.
As the employee, it’s even worse. You start to worry about your job security. You may consider offering justifications and excuses. You might try to diffuse the attention to you and your team by blaming others. Even worse, you may contemplate if it’s worth “fessing up.”
The problem with this innate response to failure is that not all failure is created equal. While some mistakes are egregious, unforgivable and game-changing, other times, the failure provides a profound learning moment.
Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School professor, created an awesome chart categorizing the types of failure. Edmondson suggests that all failure falls into three categories:
Depending on the type of failure and the category in which it falls, Edmondson argues that some failure is even praise-worthy. For instance, a failure that occurs due to exploration—e.g., an employee conducting an experiment to expand knowledge that leads to an undesired result—is commendable.
The problem with failure is that too often we view all failure as preventable and due to incompetence, inconsistency or negligence.
But if failure is not created equal, with some being good for an organization, then we can start to make a case for intentional, meaningful failure.
In our business environment, we will experience all categories and types of failure at different times. Here at Trilix, in helping companies better fuse together sound operations and vibrant culture, we see evidence of that. There are businesses that allow for organizational waste to become a defining characteristic of their environment because of neglect (PREVENTABLE). Some might fail to integrate two disparate systems because of system complexity (COMPLEXITY RELATED). And there are businesses that might find failure in trying to revamp an existing process or change the way things have always been done (INTELLIGENCE).
Many times, organizations default to less than accountable behavior. We fall below the line and revert to blamestorming, making excuses and crying out “it’s not my job”—as opposed to tackling process and systems hurdles head on and accepting failure as a learning moment.
Just as our clients will experience moments of failure, we understand that at Trilix, particularly as a startup, we will experience it too. Therefore, we empower our team to embrace failure and growth.
As a software development company, we write very complex custom applications for our clients. Most of us have heard about software development projects that are abject failures. Knowing that software development is complex and often wrought with failure, we use an agile scrum development process to create a software application (more on that here). This allows us to break the entire software development process in small manageable efforts called, sprints. Each sprint is about two weeks long, and we take lessons learned from sprint to the next sprint.
But no matter the outcome, we at Trilix understand the importance of meaningful failure. We try to impart this same mentality and belief systems in our clients. Failure often means we just need to find a different way to look at something.
To embrace meaningful failure is to become a more resilient company—a company that is capable of bouncing forward, not backward. It also creates a precedent for how to deal with hardship when it inevitably happens again. This mentality inspires your employees to be more visionary and creative. It encourages them to task risks and experiment. And it allows them to look at failure and hardship as learning moments.
I know that it’s not easy and that depending on your disposition (more on that here), you may be more wary of failure than your colleagues. But the next time you are confronted with failure, try even one of the following tips below:
- Stop looking to place blame: A lot of times, when failure occurs, we look for someone to blame or we fault ourselves. Eliminate that behavior. Placing blame is a below-the-line behavior and never helps rectify the situation.
- View the failure as a learning lesson: Use failure as an opportunity to determine what you can do differently next time and bounce forward. Ask three simple question: What worked? What didn’t work? And what would we do differently knowing what we know now?
- Look for the connection to the future: In the heat of the moment you may not realize it, but that very failure is the thing that you have been waiting for your whole life. Use failure to slow down, reconsider and reflect on how this will affect future decisions. Wait for the connection; it is often closer than you think.
In the end, it comes down to the following:
If we know that success can’t happen 100 percent of the time, then why do we expect failure to happen 0 percent of the time?