Why failure isn’t fatal, it can be powerful

By Sarah Stowe | 05 Nov 2018 View comments

Failure is a fact of life, part of the human condition. But in today’s digital world, failures are more public and subject to intense scrutiny. While higher standards are to be aspired to, we must take care not to stigmatise everyday failures.

Innovation is non-linear and will always be accompanied by failure. It is not that you should fail, but rather that, like it or not, you will fail.

In a business context, this means that setbacks and short-term failings must be viewed as part of the innovation process. This will allow entrepreneurs and inventors to push forward faster.

Business success and failure

Having worked in early-stage technology businesses for most of my career, I’ve had some great achievements and great failures. Without doubt, I’ve learned more from the failures.

So how can we use the certainty of failure to systematically account for it as part of our day-to-day challenges? The key is to encourage a culture of experimentation in the form of small and iterative trials.

Even better is to encourage a culture of exploration. It’s in these types of organisations where major breakthroughs and moon shots happen. Sometimes you land on the moon, sometimes you crash out on the launchpad.

We all agree that A/B testing is worthwhile, yes? The whole idea is that almost everything we think of will fall short. Certainly, our first attempts are unlikely to be successful. In A/B testing we’ve accepted this as truth, so the challenge becomes not how to find a solution at the first attempt, but how to experiment easily until we find the answer?

This principle should be applied everywhere. Is anyone’s decision making or judgement perfect in every aspect of business? Of course not. Test everything. Experiment with everything. Fail.

Failure in business is an opportunity

Nor should testing be limited to new ideas or solutions either. It is dangerous for a company to become wedded to an established process. Blindly following process can lead to many unintended consequences. Treat any process that falls even slightly below excellence as both a potential failure and an opportunity to investigate and innovate.

When you incorporate this attitude to failure into the wider workflow, your team will end up asking themselves important questions: your assumptions are mistaken; are you testing them? Your gut knows your logic isn’t airtight; are you listening? Your current ideas lead you to better ideas; are you adopting them?

Eventually, you’ll realise that failure is powerful. You’ll do what you can to acknowledge it, learn to work through and around it rather than let it tank you or your efforts. An easy way to do that is to get people out of their comfort zones. Try asking them to work in an area where they have more questions than answers.

While your team might be initially apprehensive to explore an area in which they don’t have much expertise, new challenges will provide the leeway for failure, learning and adaptation. Starting at ground level, they will inevitably fail but without bringing their expertise into question.

This “novice mode’” encourages people, no matter their age or experience, to work in surprisingly innovative and productive ways. The phrase “fail fast” will become a welcome relief rather than a trendy burden.

The organisation that learns and adapts will surpass the one that is unable to evolve – just look at the disrupted industries across the economy, from taxis to television. Learning should be the aim of every business, and there is no such thing as learning without failure.

By Mark Randall, country manager Australia/New Zealand, WP Engine

This article first appeared in Inside Small Business, a sibling publication to Inside Franchise Business.