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

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

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.

How to Have a Successful Failure, Part Two

This is part two of a two-part series on how your business can not only survive but also thrive after a major setback by embracing failure as an opportunity. Part one discussed successful businessmen who persevered after failures and ultimately became successful. Part two contains specific tips on how you can achieve a successful failure for your business.

We’ve all failed at something. Maybe it was your driver’s test when you were 16. Perhaps you didn’t make that weight loss goal you set for yourself last year. Or maybe you’ve suffered a major setback in your business and are starting to feel like a failure.

You can move on from failure. As Maya Angelou said, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

I’d like to offer a few tips on how to overcome that feeling of failure and perceive it as an opportunity for success.

  1. Accept failure, but view it as temporary.

As motivational speaker and writer Denis Waitley said, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is a delay, not a defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end.”

So some marketing initiative or new product launch didn’t work out as planned. Perhaps your company has suffered a huge financial setback. Acknowledge that the attempt to meet your goal failed, but vow to move on.

  1. Learn from your previous mistakes.

If possible, determine what went wrong to cause the failure. If it’s not possible for you to uncover the issue internally, consider hiring outside help to find out the cause and help ensure success next time. An outside consultant can also help you determine if you’ve correctly pinpointed the issue. I’ve been hired to help failing companies that thought they knew exactly what the issue is, only for me to determine they were wrong and that the solution they had proposed was doomed to fail.

  1. Set realistic expectations.

It’s great to stretch yourself and set ambitious goals for you and your company. But setting them too high can result in yet another failure and demoralize your employees.

I tell the story in my book, How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me, of working with a company in Florida that bought a company in Minnesota and wanted to move it to Florida and have it operational in three days. Given their resources and logistical considerations, the plan was absolutely impossible.

I worked with them to map out a two-month process for the relocation. The move went smoothly and with a minimum of downtime.

  1. Consider your definition of success.

During the recession a lot of companies had to reconsider what their definition of success is. As I heard it described then, “Survival is the new success.” Sometimes in tough times, just keeping your business afloat is a success. Recognize that and congratulate yourself for it.

We will all fail at something in our life, and yes, that can be disappointing. But it’s how we react to it that makes all the difference. Dale Carnegie said, “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”