Fail Forward: Redefining Failure


“I have failed over and over and over again in my life and that’s why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan 

We think that failure is the opposite of success, and we optimise our businesses to avoid it. We install layers and layers of systems and controls to eliminate risk and prevent catastrophes. One surefire way we have found to avoid failing is to narrowly define what failure is, in other words, to treat almost everything that happens as a nonfailure.

If the outcome of our efforts is not a failure, there is no need to panic, is there? Failure creates urgency. Failure gets you fired. Failure cannot stand; it demands a response. But the status quo is simply embraced and, incredibly, protected.

Failure demands a response. But the status quo is embraced and, incredibly, protected.

Given our strong cultural bias against failure, this probably won’t win me any fans, but I think we have no choice but to aggressively redefine the concept to include far more outcomes than our current definition does.

Every day, there’s a line (sometimes 10 minutes long) to use the ladies’ room at Park Station in Johannesburg. This is a failure. It’s a failure of design, of gender relations, and of resources. Because it’s not currently treated as a failure, it doesn’t get addressed. We are fine with the status quo.

Every day, thousands of people call your business’s customer support line because they don’t understand how to use one of your products. This is a failure. It’s a failure worse than if they had not bought your product at all. A zero-sales situation might set off alarm bells, but the ringing phone feels like a normal interaction, not a failure.

And every day, some of your company’s resources and assets go to waste. The permission your best customers have given you to market to them is abused when you send them unwanted pitches, when you send them span email. The momentum you have worked so hard to create for your new product line is squandered because your marketers are busy focusing on other things. These are failures, failures as urgent as if a wheelbarrow of cash were burning unchecked in the parking lot of your building.

If you care about your company, your customers, and the meaning of value, you will care enough to reexamine your definition of failure. Here are a few types to consider adding to the mix:

Design failure. If your product or service is mis-designed, then people don’t understand it, don’t purchase it, or may even harm themselves when they use it, and you have failed.

Failure of opportunity. If your assets are poorly deployed, ignored, or being wasted, it’s as if you are destroying them, and you have failed.

Failure of trust. If you waste shareholders or investors’ goodwill and respect by taking shortcuts in exchange for short-term profits, you have failed.

Failure of will. If your business prematurely abandons important work because of internal resistance or a temporary delay in market adoption, you have failed.

Failure of priorities. If your management team chooses to focus on work that doesn’t create value, that’s like sending cash directly to your competitors, and you have failed.

Failure to quit. If your business sticks with a mediocre idea, facility, or team too long because it lacks the guts to create something better, you have failed.

Failure of respect. If you succeed without treating your people, your customers, and your resources with respect and honesty, you have failed.

And, of course, the most self-referential form of failure is the failure to see when you’re failing.


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