Wise Failures Guarantee Success

Newsletter 31

Martin, a young entrepreneur, sat at his desk with his office door closed and his head between his hands. “Boy, this is one of the biggest bonehead moves I’ve ever made,” he berated himself. “I should have known better than to bet the farm on that aggressive strategy the last couple of years. It hasn’t paid off, we’re now operating in the red, and I’m worried about what the future will hold for Martin Enterprises. Why didn’t I just stay at my old job where I had more security?”

The short answer, of course, is because it was mind numbing and he was bored to death. It’s human nature to want to escape an unpleasant situation by imagining yourself in a different situation, even if we tend to distort the facts a bit (my personal favorite involves some minor variation of being a wealthy beachcomber on an island in the South Seas).

I define a “failure” as having failed to achieve your expectations or goals. When faced with a failure, which inevitably happens to all of us, there are much better options available than wishful thinking (which doesn’t correct the failure) or self flagellation (which doesn’t correct the failure and leads to depression). Instead, we can learn from the failure and make changes that will bring us more consistent success in the future.

When we refer to people as “wise,” one of our assumptions is that they got that way from being on the planet long enough to learn from a lot of failures. This is in direct contrast to the overachiever/perfectionist credo of “never make a mistake.”

If you’re not making mistakes and failing, then you’re not innovating; and if you’re not innovating then you’re pretty much doomed in the organizational world anyhow. You will be run over by the steady change that surrounds us all.

Learning from your past failures and staying in the game can insure that you will enjoy a more consistent success in the future. Said another way, through the pain and learning of your failure you become a wiser person who is “inoculated” against this type of failure in the future.

Of course not all failures build wisdom and future success. Unwise failures are a repeat of past failures because we didn’t learn anything from them the first time. A popular aphorism is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result-that seems to fit here because you can literally drive yourself bananas!

Analyzing the lessons in a failure is relatively simple. Examine the three components of a decision (Kepner & Tregoe, 1997):

  1. Objectives (what is the goal?)
  2. Alternatives (what course of action will we use to achieve the goal?)
  3. Risk (what level of risk is involved?)

If you make a decision which leads to a failure to achieve your expectations and goals, then you can make a better one the next time by changing one or more of these components. For poor discouraged Martin, he can analyze whether his expectations were unrealistic or too risky, or whether the alternative course of action he chose was ineffective. Then he can make adjustments guaranteed to make him wiser and more successful in the future (and live happily ever after?).


Technique #1: Never personalize a failure; it’s just a decision you made, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with your worth as a human being.

Technique #2: Create an organizational culture that rewards innovation by accepting failures as and inevitable part of the innovation process (e.g., recognition or financial rewards for innovations and near misses).

Technique #3: Prevent the repetition of failures by documenting them and sharing the lessons with your colleagues.

Technique #4: Glean the success lessons from a failure by examining and adjusting objectives, alternatives, and risk.

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