How to Fail Better

Failure is the corporate f-word. It makes people paranoid, particularly when organizations are constantly ‘right sizing’, and their history of failure could earn them a priority boarding pass when it comes to chopping head counts.

So what do you need to do if you discover your biggest innovation is about to become a flop? It may not be a confidence-and-image-wrecking failure, but you still need to live with the consequences of your actions and wear the ‘I failed’ badge for a while. Suddenly whatever you wanted to say, the new ideas you wanted to throw out there, you’d rather hold back. You’ve lost the credibility to comment or make assumptions of what’s going on the in the market and you fall back in the comfort zone of not trying anything new, joining the ranks
of those who say, ‘Show me who has done it first and I will believe this innovative idea
will work!’

I won’t tell you that screwing up big time
is okay that you are a fast failer and that’s what it takes to win. That’s a convenient excuse. Actually, maybe it is not as bad as you think. The problem is, failing can cause a lot of harm, beyond just investments and credibility; it creates a bigger problem when the entire organization is suddenly in ‘safe boot’ mode and becomes risk adverse. That fear will
stay within the organization and become part of the organization memory, and, ultimately
 its dogma. That’s the biggest price of failure. It stops others from trying bold, innovative, ideas. As humans, our biggest fear – aside from death – is the fear of failure. Sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves trying to avoid it. I am not advocating that we should all fail more; if we can avoid it, why not? But there is a distinction between a smart way to fail and a dumb way to fail. Even if there’s no avoiding it, you need to learn to bounce back.

To innovate and take calculated risks is the safest thing you can do.

Today’s hyper-competitive environment and disruptive innovation calls for unconventional thinking, action in the face of extreme uncertainty – and the occasional stumble. We need people who not only know how to minimize failure, but how to manage it when it happens. We need to hire people who have made mistakes and managed their way out of them instead of walking away.

Here’s what you need to do to plan a successful bounce back:

01/ Admit it

Do not defend it. Instead, get to the core of why it failed. Take away your emotion and guilt and take full responsibility. Bury the pain, and perform the most painful part  – the autopsy. Try to find gold, see what the company can get out of it rather than hiding or not talking about it.

02/ Preform a strategic diagnosis of the true cause of failure and take a system view

Don’t just blame lack of marketing budget or product positioning. Any failure consists of many missteps, but you need to know which was the fatal blow. Then examine ways to avoid it. What are the assumptions that caused the wrong decisions? Go deeper to find out the existing mental models that drive those assumptions. The same mental model could cost the company more opportunity, and this is the time to surface them.

03/ Radiate positive optimism and energy and use this to encourage others to learn from your mistake so they can avoid them

Translate the lessons into stories and celebrate whatever parts are worth celebrating. Show optimism and spread it – it shows your true strengths. It also helps you to see who are the other optimists in your team and who are the pessimists. Pessimists don’t come back as they see their failure as permanent, pervasive. Optimists are like good soldiers who never give up the fight and still show leadership despite adversity.

04/ Use what you’ve just learned to help the company to be more resilient

After a failure you are, at the very least, more qualified to see one coming. Develop scenarios so the company can face the same failure in other projects or product categories. By creating these ‘crises’ you can help the company prevent them from happening again. Most valuable of all, take what you’ve learned from the failure and use it to generate new opportunities. What Coke learned from their most expensive mistake, the failure that was New Coke, was the power of the emotional bond of consumers to the product. It forced them to rethink that bond for every product and every brand, as well as what it means and how to nurture it. Use this insight as a positive force to deepen engagement and create and share meanings. Everyone under-estimates the power of the emotional bond of product. This was not just a wake up call for Coke, but for every marketer. So turn that failure into a theory of success and use that to drive innovation in all levels of the organization. And if you do that well, your story of failure will ultimately turn into a story of success.

This article originally appeared in MISC Summer 2013, The Bounce Back Issue.

the author

Idris Mootee

Idris Mootee is the publisher and editor-in-chief of MISC and CEO of Idea Couture. See his full bio here.