Success is what we all strive for. But it is not Success that helps you move forward. If you analyse Success, you are looking in a rear view mirror and will only try to duplicate your previous actions. But as Heraclitus observed 2500 years ago, you cannot step twice into the same river. The real value of learning is from being able to take lessons from Failure.
We think we know what failure looks like. Products don’t get purchased. Reorganisations make things worse. Goods are not delivered, let alone delivered on time if they get delivered. Speeches don’t get applauded, no one gives you a standing ovation. Things explode. These are the emergencies and disasters that we have nightmares about.
We think that failure is the opposite of success, and we optimise our businesses to avoid it. We install layers and layers of management 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 non-failure. If the outcome of our efforts is not a failure, there’s 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.
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 major events 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 does not get addressed. We’re 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.
If you care about your company, your customers, and the meaning of value, you’ll care enough to re-examine 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 decaying, it’s as if you are destroying them, and you have failed.
Failure of trust. If you waste customers’ or other stakeholders’ 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 does not 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.