Teach me how to fail – we need the money!

We only learn by our failures. Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that before. And your cheque is in the mail.

We all repeat this by rote like a demented parrot. How many actually believe it? And if we do, why don’t we act like it?

The cynic would say that the reason we don’t actually allow people to fail is that companies lie. They say they want to encourage taking chances but they really don’t. They simply do not want to pay the price. I suggest that it’s not hypocracy, that gets in the way. The problem is we don’t know HOW to fail. The good news is that you can learn to embrace failure – and reap the rewards.

Viagara? A failed heart drug. Despite the fact that it failed, someone noticed that it had an interesting side effect. As much as we might giggle about this one, who among us wouldn’t like to have our product or service find such a compelling need. It’s just a hunch, but I’ll be sales of Viagara are recession proof. They probably keep rising. okay, I’m sorry, I had to have at least one pun.

Post it notes? Made with a failed adhesive. It didn’t stick well enough. Heck, it would come off without even leaving a mark. Someone trying to keep track of pages in a book (a hymnal, I think) put two and two together. Once again, we might cut back on some things in the office, but Post-It’s get bought. I’ll be their sales are holding their own as well.

A little more esoteric. The Sony PlayStation. Born out of a failed agreement with Nintendo that resulted in Sony having access to some of the most highly prized games. Kutaragi – the man who saved Sony with the profits from this best seller was described recently in a Wall Street Journal article as a “renegade” who “went over budget on development costs”. He was almost ousted in the early development of the Play Station when it went over budget and substantially underperformed in sales. That might have been a bigger mistake – since this failure went on to generate 40% of Sony’s profits in the 1990’s.

Intellectually, we get it. Anyone who has had a first year course in marketing probably knows a couple of additional stories. Heck, you’ve probably heard some motivational speaker, perhaps even one hired by your own company, espousing the benefits of failure.

The problem is that we don’t really seem to believe it. We know it’s true, but we don’t how to deal with it.

Because truth be told, we don’t want failure. We just want the success that follows. No pain, no gain? Yeah, right.

I had an initial meeting with a prospective client where I talked about how much I’d learned from my mistakes. He nodded and made all the right noises. Then he turned to me and said, without batting an eye – “of course, we’d prefer it if you didn’t learn anything here.”

One of my favourites, when I was at Ernst & Young was on time when the head of our firm mouthed the words that we needed to take some chances and learn from our mistakes. One of the great things about a partnership is that when you are close to retirement, you get to say what you want. One of the more senior partners challenge him on this, asking if we really wanted our people out there “failing” at the client. The head of the firm, without missing a beat, said “no, I don’t want our people failing.” Full marks for honesty. You be the judge about the leadership shown.

I admin it’s not easy. I once had to give someone a speech that I’d read and admired intellectually. There’s an apocryphal story about an executive who failed big and was brought into the CEO’s office expecting to be fired. Instead, the CEO promoted him. I find the next part hard to believe, because I would have taken the promotion, thanked him and gotten the hell out of their before he came back to his senses or realized that it was me he promoted.

In this story, the exec confesses that he thought he was in there to be fired. “Fire you?” says the CEO. “After all the money we spent teaching you never to make that mistake again?”

I like this guy – even if he’s not real. I’ve told this story. Then one day, someone did fail big. They were competent. They were remorseful. They didn’t deserve to be fired. This person didn’t even work for me. But I saved their job and took them into my area.

I almost made an enemy out of the person that was about to fire them – except that I saved him the severance and it took a lot of fence mending. So this wasn’t an easy one for me.

The person thanked me – they were apologetic — they promised that they would work hard for our area. But in the back of my mind, was I 100% certain that this was a good thing? No. I was really worried.

And in case you think I’m a saint, forget it. I’m not. But a long time ago a guy named Eugene Fuoco saved my sorry butt after I messed up BIG TIME and offended an SVP who wanted my head on a plate, never mind firing me.

Fuoco placated this guy with the same wisdom. “He’s not going to do this again.” He could have made me clean toilets for a long time. Instead, he gave me another chance to shine at a big company event. I pulled it off and Ray (my nemesis) had the stones to come up and congratulate me. Even though I’d been a jerk, I did a great job. I was back in the land of the living.

I’ll never be able to pay Eugene back for his leadership and courage. But I had to honour it. So I fought my fears and did the right thing. Was I worried? You bet.

Did it work out? Actually it did. Years later this person has a great career, they are a friend and when they were in my area they were fabulous. The problem that I worried about never happened.

But that’s not the point. Even if I had a problem, it was still the right decision.

So why didn’t it feel right?

Part of it is our programming. Nobody likes to lose. We don’t really reward losers. Just listen when you hear the words “failure” or “loser”. It’s burned into our culture.

I once heard a comic refer to a silver medalist in the Olympics as the “number 1 loser” and I laughed.

The second reason is certainly the risk. When I saved that person’s job, when Fuoco saved mine, or when the executive at Sony sheltered Kutaragi — their actions were risky. Can you imagine what happens when you reward failure and then the person fails again? I mean, how do you explain that one?

There’s a real and present risk.

I can’t give someone a courage transplant. I’m not sure I have enough moral authority to do that. So let me give you a reality lesson instead.

Everybody fails. Even the ones who don’t highlight it. Yeah. Really. Actually, the ones who don’t mention it fail at least twice. The second one is the failure to tell the truth.

At best, it’s a little bit of organization cowardice that we all live with. At worst, it’s a cynical little game of doublespeak. It’s like the job interview question, “tell me about the failure you’ve had and what you learned from it?”

“Well, my biggest failure is that I care too much and I work too hard. Sometimes, people say, you have to get more work life balance. But damn, I just care so much about my clients and I love my work so much, I can’t help myself….”

Does anyone believe this?

I did a presentation to a group a month or so ago. I presented two situations. One was a real success, the other was one that didn’t go so well. Just for fun, I said to them, “I bet you think I’m going to talk about the success. How about we do something different this time?”

I told them about the challenges that I had faced and what I’d done with them. Now, even here, this failure went on to ultimately succeed – but it was still a risk. I’m convinced that I lost a big job this same year by being too honest in the final presentation and I was still recovering from that. So why did I try this “failed” strategy again? I considered how I’d approached it last time, I tried to figure out why it didn’t work, and I went back to it.

This time? We won — against a lot of competition. Would we have still won without this strategy? I don’t know. I don’t give it full marks, but I do credit it with being one part of a successful presentation.

There’s no certainty. That’s the point.

And even when we are given permission to fail — “Get out there, try it and learn.” – we don’t really believe it.

So there’s the dilemma. It is a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” situation.

As always, I don’t have all the answers. But I have given this some thought and here’s one way that is working for me. I have a couple of key things that I do. Here’s how I’ve learned to fail successfully.


It works for investments. Why not for corporate work? When I’m asked to do something risky, I never do just one thing. I try three pilots.

Why threes? I don’t know. I’ve just found that if I do three small projects, one will knock it out of the park, one will be okay and one will be a “learning process”.

Keep the cost down:

Use the power of pilots and prototypes. There is a price point we all have – organizationally, personally — where we are willing to throw away the cost and we can live with it. It sounds obvious, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people bet the farm on a large investment. Don’t.

Manage expectations

Another reason for pilots, proof of concept and prototypes. These are set up as learning vehicles. We expect to have lessons learned and throw away results.

The expectations are low, so whatever you come up with will work – if you do it in conjunction with the first point – fast and light. I try to learn this lesson over and over again.

Think about it. If your boss or client asks you for something, what happens if you do it quickly? It’s short, to the point and matches the time you spend.

When you respond quickly to a request, you can jot down a quick message. Yes it has to be clear and have quality. But it doesn’t take a lot of verbiage, pictures, format or structure.

But what happens if that same event sits on you to do list for a week? Suddenly, you (and your boss) have bigger expectations. If it took a week, it had better be good. Then “thud factor” takes over and you look for more and more reasons to make it look like you’ve spent your time well.

Trust me, these behaviours are unconscious, but they are there.

So respond quickly. Use templates. Keep it brief. Stay late if you have to.

Manage the Message

Always remember that you are speaking cross culturally. People don’t want to hear about failure, really. So when you talk about it, even if you think that people are receptive, assume that you are giving bad news. Manage your message.

As my friend Shelle Rose Charvet will point out, if you want to give bad news, you do it by first stating the negative, put in the word “but” and then follow with the positive.

So it’s “we tried two pilots that had challenges, BUT the third showed that under the right conditions, this can be successful. We know the risks and how to manage them.”

So don’t fail to learn — learn to fail. In fact, fail your way to higher profits, greater agility and long term success.

And if I’ve failed to cover all the points, there must be two of you out there at least who can fill in what I’ve missed. Right?

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Filed under Change, Marketing, Sales, Strategy, Technology

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