The Value of a Successful Failure

A successful failure sounds like an oxymoron, right? Like jumbo shrimp, open secret or one of my favorites, only choice. So, what is a successful failure? It’s an endeavor that did not succeed at its original goal, but its failure taught you lessons that you turned into a success.

Apollo 13 has been referred to as a successful failure. As you may recall from the popular movie about the mission, aptly called “Apollo 13,” the spacecraft launched on April 11, 1970, the third spacecraft destined to land on the moon. But the landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days after launch. After hearing, “Houston, we have a problem” from the astronauts, NASA then spent several tense days working through multiple problems to return the crew and the spacecraft safely to earth.

Mission Control in Houston dealing with the explosion onboard Apollo 13. (Photo courtesy of NASA.org)

Mission Control in Houston dealing with the explosion onboard Apollo 13. (Photo courtesy of NASA.org)

The mission to get to the moon was a failure. The recovery of the crippled aircraft and saving the lives of three crew members was a success.

“A ‘successful failure’ describes exactly what 13 was – because it was a failure in its initial mission — nothing had really been accomplished,” said Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13 as reported in an interview. But he called it, “a great success in the ability of people to take an almost certain catastrophe and turn it into a successful recovery.”

I have dealt with several successful failures in my turnaround career. By the time I’m called in, many companies are on the verge of total failure, and we are often able to salvage some value out of the company, resulting in a successful failure.

I like to think of the quote from Nelson Mandela who said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.

Read more about Successful Failures in my two-part series, “How to Have a Successful Failure.” You’ll love the story of the college drop-out who started a business and become a millionaire, then bankrupted that company. Using the lessons he learned from that failure, he started another business and became a billionaire. Now, that’s what I call a successful failure.

My book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” is now available as an ebook.

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