When Failure is an Option

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 
— Thomas Edison

I recently read an editorial in the New York Times called “The Power of Failure,” in which the writer addresses how nonprofits are tempted to hide their failures while some for-profit industries have accepted that failure is part of the process.

Sarika Bansal quotes Wayan Vota as saying, “In Silicon Valley, failure is a rite of passage. If you’re not failing, you’re not considered innovative enough.” Mr. Vota is a technology and information expert who recently organized a conference in Washington called FAIRFaire that focuses on lessons learned from projects that failed.

As a turnaround expert, my career is focused on working with companies that are experiencing failure. If a company is thriving, they don’t need me. I’m brought in when things aren’t so rosy.

successI don’t really want any company to be failing to the point where I’m called in to turn the company around.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s best for any company to enjoy a straight line of success. There are so many lessons to be learned from failure and if CEOs and business owners don’t learn how to deal with failure, they won’t know how to handle it when it inevitably happens.

A few years ago NPR correspondent Eric Weiner traveled the world to investigate where people are the happiest. He wrote the bestselling book “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.”

One of the fascinating things he uncovered was that people in Iceland are generally happy, which he attributes in part to the fact that failure doesn’t carry a stigma in Iceland. It’s totally normal for a person to have a résumé reflecting multiple careers — from journalist to executive to theologian — failing at some junctions and continuing on a different path.

For a company to grow and flourish, it has to be innovative and creative. Along with that comes a certain amount of failure. As a CEO or business owner, you want to encourage that innovation, while not stigmatizing any failure that may result from trying something new.

Take a lesson from Thomas Edison. “Negative results are just what I’m after. They are just as valuable to me as positive results.”

Confucius said, “Greatness is not achieved by never falling but by rising each time we fall.” Will Rogers said,  “To avoid failure is to limit accomplishment.” Jack Welsh said, “I’ve learned that mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.”

One of my favorite perspectives on failure comes from basketball superstar Michael Jordan and I urge you to take it to heart if you’re dealing with a setback at your business: “I have taken more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I have failed over and over again in my life; and that is why I succeed.”

I love the drawing by comedian Demetri Martin about what people think success looks like compared to what it really looks like. Success is not a straight line. But the important point is to keep your company on an upward path, no matter how many times it takes a backward step.

If you’ve made a mistake or failed at something at your business, admit your mistake. Learn from it. Encourage your employees to do the same.

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