Convert Failure into a Strategic Resource
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again. This time more intelligently.” — Henry Ford
John Danner starts off his TEDTalk noting all letters in the alphabet are not created equal. He says one letter strikes dread in the hearts of students and conjures painful memories among many who’ve graduated from school. That would be the letter F. It connotes failure. Something we’re all experiencing, yet we’re often not very comfortable talking about it. He says it’s because we all want success.
Organizations are no different. They want success, they want growth, and they want innovation. According to John, innovation requires failure. Organizations want engaged employees and great places to work. Guess what drives great workplaces? Trust. It’s created when people are high-fiving one another and things are going great. Trust gets destroyed when things aren’t going great and there’s failure.
So, John asks the audience, how do you deal with failure? How do you turn it from regret into a potential resource? He notes failure is all around us in virtually every dimension and endeavor human beings undertake. Michael Jordan is arguably the finest basketball player to ever play the sport, but he missed more shots than he made. In the tech field, three out of four projects either don’t deliver the functionality promised, or blow their budgets. In startup businesses the death rate is about seventy percent in the first eighteen months. John says if you think Silicon Valley has a magic formula to improve those odds, you’d be wrong. The fact is three out of four venture backed startups fail to return even the original investment.
And it gets worse. Eighty-eight percent of New Year’s resolutions tend not to happen. He says for folks involved in innovative product development, new products completely fail or don’t perform as expected nine out of ten times. His last example of failure is the crown jewel of intellectual property: Patents. John says ninety-nine percent of patents granted by the US Patent Office failed to return a dime to the inventors.
Failure is everywhere. It is universal. John says one of the difficulties is many of us think a lot about failure, but we tend to not talk about failure very much. John and his coauthor Mark Coopersmith came up with a metaphor for failure. They say it’s a little bit like gravity. It’s pervasive, it’s invisible, and in effect, it’s inescapable. It’s possible though to escape it if you respect it and recognize it though. You may be able to leverage it like the Wright brothers and Ancient Romans did with gravity.
John’s particular definition of failure is mistakes and unwelcome outcomes that matter to something important to us. He says they are shelves full of books on dealing with failure. What he wants to do is something a little bit different. He wants to help executives, entrepreneurs and leaders figure out how to put failure to work. Get it out from behind the closed door of taboo within organizations. Put on the table where discussions can be had openly.
Rather than wasting time and resources figuring out who’s responsible and searching for a scapegoat, John suggests you can begin to convert failure from a regrettable event into a strategic resource in two ways. On is the pivot, like when the founders of a startup took their ‘Swiss Army knife’ suite of apps no one wanted and stumbled on a wonderful pivot opportunity that happen to become Instagram. John cautions sometimes pivoting can be the exact wrong thing to do. Instead of a pivot, he recommends a rivet. For example, in 1953 the Rocket Chemical Company ‘riveted’ with their water displacement formula. They riveted down all the way from WD-1 right on through WD-39, which resulted in what we know as WD-40. A product universally used today, almost without change.
Putting failure to work isn’t about exonerating failure caused by incompetence, negligence, or ill-will. It’s about liberating failure when it happens, taking it out of the realm of taboo. John says you want to be able to talk about it. There are four things John recommends to start with when it comes to failure:
First, adjust your personal attitude towards failure. How you deal with it sets the tone for your entire organization. Second, start the F word conversation. It’s the elephant in the room. Everybody knows failure is going on in your organization. You need to be willing to talk about it and make it an open conversation. Something people feel comfortable disclosing. Third, apply the un-golden rule. Do unto yourself before others can do unto you. John says that’s a lesson Kodak, Xerox, Polaroid, and a host of other formerly fabulous giant companies wish they would’ve applied. Fourth, recognize even if you can’t prevent failures from happening, you have control over how they end. When the postmortem comes, people too often start with the who, rather than the what, why, and where. To combat this tendency, John recommends you pronounce the word F-A-I-L-U-R-E slowly, because it may well be you’ll find your (URE) fingerprints all over the failure in question. You can view his full comments here.
John is the coauthor of The Other “F” Word: How Smart Leaders, Teams, and Entrepreneurs Put Failure to Work along with Mark Coopersmith, and the coauthor of Built for Growth: How Builder Personality Shapes Your Business, Your Team, and Your Ability to Win with Chris Kuenne.