Saturday, February 25, 2012

Failures and other success stories

It took Thomas Edison ten thousand tries to perfect the light bulb.  It’s a, if not the, classic story of overcoming failure through perseverance.

But the reality is that the founder of GE had resources unavailable to most private business owners today.  It begs the question:  how many failures can you afford before you get it right?  Certainly, it's far less than old Tom.

Failures are part of business, and life.  If we are smart, we learn from them. If we are not, we are soon out of business, and sometimes out of life

But let's not dwell on the negative.   There are plenty of motivational and instructional quotes on the value of trying but failing, one of my favorites being "A man's errors are the portals of discovery."

If failures are inevitable, can we minimize their occurrence and impact on our businesses and our lives?  How do we turn them into teachable moments, into Joyce's "portals of discovery?"

For starters, let's acknowledge that there is a difference between failure and mistakes.  In my book, a failure is an attempt that doesn't work, but that is instructional, that can be built upon (see Edison, above.)  A mistake is something that is ill-conceived, poorly planned, or repeated.  It teaches us nothing useful.  If you say to yourself, "I won't do that again" -- think a fork in a socket -- it's likely you've made a mistake (see below.)

So, how do you avoid mistakes, but not failures?  
  • By making good decisions.
  • By having a process (mental or physical or a combination of the two) by which you proceed through an analysis of the situation at hand.  
  • By having a clear vision of the outcome you want and the ability to communicate it.
  • By instituting a culture of good decision-making in your organization, which teaches the difference between mistake and failure.
  • By embracing a culture of innovation and change while understanding the difference between risk-taking and wishful thinking.

Ultimately, success or failure is the culmination of the decisions we make, or choose not to make, every day.  You can fail 10,000 times and be hailed as the greatest innovator of your time, but unless you are Wile E. Coyote you won't recover from making repeated mistakes. 



Anonymous said...

This month's Scientific American has an editorial on this topic. The author cites surveys in which entrepreneurs are so overly optimistic beyond logic and advice that they put too much capital at risk and lose it all. It's a difficult path to walk - because it seems that those that succeed beyond dreams have traveled where others have said they would fail, however, the only way to succeed as a small business owner is to persevere beyond what many people consider reasonable.

Al Bellenchia said...

Great point, and good article. I find the new research on our species' cognitive disabilities fascinating, if discomforting. We have a lot to learn, and unlearn!

Jordan said...

What if Edison hadn't failed 10,000 times trying to invent the light bulb. What if it had only been 100 let's say. How much less would he have learned and how much less would he have discovered if that had been the case? At times, our failures can be what teach us the most.

Al Bellenchia said...

Exactly! Spot on.