Failure. It’s painful, it hurts, and it’s also a very important part of life. In business, failure is necessary to grow and prosper. I have failed more times than I’ve succeeded. Some of these weren’t small failures, they were the kind that put my businesses and finances on the edge. On more than one occasion, failure has almost bankrupted me and forced my businesses into receivership. Yet, at the eleventh hour, solutions and opportunities have arisen through learning from failure.
Ask any successful business person and they will most likely tell you they’ve failed many times. Nobody particularly enjoys failing, but failure, through its life-altering lessons, makes us into better people and better business owners. To look at it another way, failure is losing something now to win something that is bigger and better in the future. Just as a company’s survival depends on revenue growth, a business owner’s wellbeing depends on learning and advancement. None of that happens without failure – its symbiotic with learning.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 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
Failure allows us to learn, it teaches us. Failure does not care about your budget, your business plan, your connections or your ego. Without failure, we’d be less capable of compassion, empathy, kindness, and great achievement; we would be less likely to reach for the moon and the stars.
Whenever Elon Musk, reaching for those stars, had another rocket blow up, he used humour as part of that learning process.
“Ascent phase and satellites look good, but booster rocket had an RUD* on droneship.” – Elon Musk (*Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly)
It’s through failure that we learn the greatest lessons. It’s through repeated failure that Elon Musk has successfully invented a reusable rocket that lands safely.
So, what does failure look like and why is it so important to fail at something before we can succeed? When we think about failure, we think of things in a negative light. We say that business failure is painful and that it causes emotional turmoil and upset, regret, and remorse.
In their book, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, Johnson and Whitney say: “If you want failure to be anything but emotionally catastrophic, you need to plan to fail. Part of that plan, in addition to a focus on recovery time, is surrounding yourself with stakeholders, who are sufficiently invested in you that they’ll stick with you, even through a professional face-plant.”
You will find that the most successful people in life have failed the most times. If you welcome failure as a guide and teacher, you’re more likely to find your way to success. Secondly, when you and your business are driven by discovery, you take a step forward, gather feedback and adapt.
We often don’t realise what some businesses and the people behind them had to go through in order to get to where they are. Shoe Dog, Phil Knight’s memoir about creating Nike, is a refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like. Shoe Dog gives an honest tale of what it takes to succeed in business.
Society tends to celebrate the successes rather than highlighting the epic journeys towards success that are filled with trials, tribulations, upsets, setbacks, and failures. It’s not as glamorous to talk about those things. Accompanying this is the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ where people of high status are resented, attacked, cut down or criticised simply because they have been classified as superior to their peers.
So, what have I learnt from failure?
Failure Lesson #1: Experience
The first important lesson gained from failure is experience. It’s through experience that we learn what does or doesn’t work in business. Will my new product or service be well received by my customers? The experience I have had in international business allows me to pass on this knowledge to my customers as I know what works and what doesn’t when entering international markets.
Lesson #2: Knowledge
Knowledge is power and through failure we acquire volumes of knowledge. That knowledge can be harnessed in the future to overcome the very failure that inflicted so much pain in the first place. Nothing can replace the knowledge gained from failure. Each time I fail in a business process or selling technique, I gain important insight. I can then enhance and learn from that failure, moving confidently forward with a new approach.
Lesson #3: Resilience and sustainability
The more resilience you build into your business, the more sustainable it will become. Failure signifies weak points in your business processes and strategy. You can then focus and remedy these shortcomings and build a stronger business over the long-term.
Lesson #4: Growth
When we fail, through knowledge and resilience we grow. We reach deeper meanings and understandings about our businesses and why we’re doing the things that we’re doing. This helps us to reflect and take things into perspective, developing meaning from painful situations. Growth allows you to eliminate the errors and create streamlined processes in your business culture.
Lesson #5: Value
Value is very important. Failure not only provides feedback on what your clients value but also where to invest your time. It’s through failure that you can determine the perceived and real value that you offer your clients. As the saying goes, there is no point flogging a dead horse. Failure helps you identify the dead and winning horses quickly.
Lesson #6: Fail fast
‘Fail fast’ is a philosophy that values extensive testing and incremental development to determine whether an idea has value. An important goal of the philosophy is to cut losses when testing reveals something isn’t working and quickly try something else, a concept known as pivoting. In business, when you fail, fail fast. Learn and move on quickly.
Failure will always be a part of succeeding in business. While its often difficult to enjoy failure, especially when your business is collapsing around you, do your best to acknowledge it as a learning process that you will gain strength from. Ignore the naysayers. Throughout my business career I’ve been told ‘it can’t be done’, ‘it won’t work’, ‘I told you so’ and ‘you should have listened to me’. These words are some of the most motivational comments to hear! I then have pinpoint focus to prove those naysayers wrong.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received was, ‘it’s okay to fail but it’s not okay to give up!’ So fail fast, pick yourself up and reiterate – you will then succeed. Pushing forward and not giving up is quite possibly one of the best ways to recover from failure. Remember, it’s not true failure unless you throw in that proverbial towel and wholeheartedly give up forever.
Graham Dockrill is an entrepreneur, investor and sales strategist and has founded several technology start-ups. Focusing on aligning international strategy and sales, www.citrustreeconsultants.com supports companies launching into new markets. Building on the successes and failures of previous endeavours Graham provides valuable insights and learnings on growing your business.