Here’s why you have to rethink your idea on failure

We’re used to thinking about failure with a capital F. But failure as a concept has been problematic from the get-go. Taking the journey towards success, after all, requires embracing the tricky and difficult aspects to any project.

One step towards gaining better control over them might just be to refuse to label them as failures.

What might that mean, exactly? Here are a few ideas.

Failure is part of the process: the sooner you make it, the better

“How to Kill a Unicorn” author Mark Payne was quoted in an article from Fortune Magazine saying that an open attitude towards failure needs to be paired with honest, rough, and intentional analysis. It might mean using the collective imagination of a team to envision failure as much as it envisions success.

“Exposing fledgling innovation ideas to the tough love of tough questions,” he says, “ensures those ideas can survive in the real world of real companies placing real bets with real money.” It can indeed be costly for a company to allow for mistakes that can otherwise be avoided, or take risks that have already been proven unnecessary in the past.

Failure is a feature of the task, and not necessarily yours

The process of fulfilling any task changes along with difficulty, skills, and resources. This is true for both teams and individuals. Writing about shortcomings, both past and more recent, can be useful for understanding these varying features. An article by Menlo Coaching offers a few insights that can make this activity more fruitful.

First, the article discusses how it is important to honestly describe the difficulty or challenge; although it’s tempting to minimize failures to paint a better picture, it hardly ever helps. Next, it is necessary to pinpoint real shortcomings that have led to a less-than-ideal situation. Lastly, insights gathered from thinking about these shortcomings are more useful if they can be more directly and immediately applied. It is one way to tell if you’re gleaning all the insights that you can make from the failure.

The goal, after all, is to accurately describe the situation so that actions can be made to develop skills that are still lacking, manage resources better, or to set a more realistic goal and pace.

Failure is new information

As one could easily guess, recurring mistakes are very likely signs of a lack of progress. “If you keep making the same mistakes again and again, you aren’t learning anything,” says David Kelley, founder of Stanford’s The point is to fail in new and different ways, revealing gaps in knowledge so they can be filled more immediately.

This is what makes an “after action review” useful and necessary as a strategy, from organizations such as the US Army to businesses both big and small. Soon after an action, for example a campaign or a merger, key participants should look at all the things that went wrong—even and especially after they’ve managed to reach a goal. Establishing the intricate link between success and failure helps teams develop a better picture of a situation.


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