Learn to Fail

Learn to Fail

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“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost more than 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life… and that is why I succeed.”
Michael Jordan

Embrace the benefits of failure! There’s such a huge focus on success in business, that we often forget what failure can teach us. So let’s de-stigmatise it. Learn from failure, adapt what you do, and use it to move forward.

By allowing yourself to fail (and therefore learn) you can actually accelerate your progress. If you think you’ll never fail, you’re probably either being overly optimistic, over-investing (trying to ensure success) or taking too long. When used in the right way, failure effectively saves you time and money.

Many individuals would rather blame other people, circumstances, or luck on their inability to succeed. Ask why they failed, and their instinctive response is: ‘It wasn’t me!’ They’ll say the economy tanked, the market wasn’t ready, their suppliers couldn’t keep up. They distance themselves and dissociate from the failure, refusing to acknowledge their own responsibility for it.

Ask people why they have been successful, and their answers are filled with personal pronouns: ‘I’ and ‘me’. Some are only too happy to take ownership and credit (sometimes misguidedly) for their success or explain why they alone contributed to their own success.

Yet almost every successful person has failed. Numerous times. Most have failed a lot more often than you. So how come they’re successful now? Many of them would say it is because they learn from failure rather than avoiding or denying it.

Let’s look at some examples. Edison, in striving to invent the lightbulb, and in failing hundreds of times, became the most prolific inventor of his day – patenting hundreds of innovative products.

And from each ‘failure,’ he perfected the successful invention of the electric lightbulb. And there’s the Post-it Note story. In the 3M research labs, Spencer Silver was trying to develop a new adhesive. He invented one, but it was even weaker than their current products. It stuck, but was easily lifted off – the opposite of what he wanted: super-weak rather than super-strong. It seemed useless, but it wasn’t discarded. Four years later, another 3M employee, Arthur Fry, wanted something to stop his choirbook place-markers falling out. He remembered Silver’s adhesive, and used some on his markers. 3M started selling Post-it Notes nationwide in 1980 – 10 years after Silver first developed the ‘useless’ weak adhesive.

Some people think that you should forget any failure and move on. Rather, identify the factors of any failure and use them as measurable benchmarks to improve your performance. Unless we measure what works and what doesn’t, and make any necessary adjustments for improvements, we can’t say we have learned from our failures. The same is true in our personal lives. Be tolerant of all your mistakes the first time, but never allow the same mistakes to be made twice.

How many people launch a business, an idea or a concept, at considerable cost, without asking some very simple questions to test their assumptions on their market audience? Later, after considerable expense in time, money and effort, they make big changes, or even scrap their idea. How much could they have saved if failure or problems had been identified much earlier?

Rather than expecting success, expect that you’ll fail a few times. Instead of assuming you’re right, look at what is wrong with your business. Iron out any wrinkles or issues by starting small and testing along the way. Fail early, fail fast, fail cheaply, and feed in the knowledge you gain to perfect your product or service – making it incredible in less time, at less cost.

Eric Ries pioneered and popularised The Lean Startup movement which has this philosophy at its heart. It is a business development and innovation methodology that both accelerates and yet minimises the impact of failure, and has been adopted by both small and large business’ strategies. Ries advocates continuously testing your vision and assumptions through ‘validated learning’: testing in the market; feeding in the results to inform the development of your ideas or products – and continuing to test and improve. Using customer trials, consultation and feedback, a business can thereby create products or services that meet customer demands and cut the risk of large scale failure by accelerating the discovery of problems and finding solutions early on.

In short – failure can be a fantastic way of learning. Ask yourself, are you failing enough? Have you learnt from your failures? If we learn so much from them, why not face them more often and find them faster? Take risks, experiment, and learn to love failure for the benefits it gives you. It’s the basis of any Research and Development process within business. Many successful companies (Google, 3M) set up teams deliberately to experiment by trial and error. It’s how groundbreaking innovation, excitement and success happen!

If you keep doing what you do, you’ll just get the same results. To do something incredible, do things differently. Strive for accelerated learning through accelerated failure, and you will achieve amazing results in far less time.

How can you push yourself more often to take risks on a small scale, and to embrace failure?

How can you accelerate your failures, make them less costly and learn more from them?

What improvements can you make, as a result of your learning from failure?

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”
Richard Branson

Further Reading:

The Lean Start Up by Eric Ries (Amazon Link UK, US)

If the above topic, or indeed any of my blogs are of interest to you, then contact me and let’s talk! Drop me an email at getintouch@marcwinn.com.

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