3 Ways to Pursue Productive Failure

Winston Churchill declared, “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

He wasn’t the only leader who recognized the reality of failure on the journey to success. Late Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy admitted, “When you fail, you have to start all over again from a lesser position.” Before discovering a major breakthrough, inventor Thomas Edison insisted, “I have not failed. I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Alexander Pope imparted, “To err is human.”

Ultimately, the only way to avoid failure is to never attempt anything new – which can prove the greatest failure of all in times of change. Failure should never be the goal, but it should be a tool. After all, not all failures are equal.

Since we’re all sentenced to fail periodically along the way, let’s be proactive about the types of failure we leverage in our pursuit of success.

Fail Fast

You’ve heard about the importance of quick wins before. They produce visible results and generate positive momentum. But what about quick failures? If your new idea or solution is doomed from the start, the quickest way to get to success is to fail fast.

Consider this scenario: Your team comes up with an innovative solution to solve a complex problem in a new way. Because it’s new, it requires significant time to analyze and design. Implementation is a complicated mix of communication, coordination and change management as well. You’re well past the point of no return when you finally come to the realization that the project has been a mistake all along. Now what?

When you fail fast, you can redirect fast. Each iteration (and reiteration) brings success closer and quicker than playing the slow game.

Fail Cheap

Money doesn’t grow on trees, as they say. Not only does it hurt to discover you’ve made a mistake after investing substantial time and effort into a project. If you’ve already sunk a significant amount of funding, you’re left with a real conundrum: stay the course in hopes of recouping a portion of your investment? Or cut ties and incur the wrath of the executive sponsors and finance department

These don’t have to be your only two options. If your project may fail, design it in a way so that you will find out while the level of investment is still low – before you incur significant cost.

Fail on a Small Scale

Perhaps the worst failure scenario is to wait until you make it to the grand stage of a major deployment to discover your solution won’t work. It’s hard to recover credibility after a public blunder delivered at full scale. In their book Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath recommend a way to reality test your assumptions using a method they call “ooch.” To “ooch” is simply to deploy a big idea on a small scale upfront. Use a test market or a pilot group. Create a pilot for a pilot, if you can. Be obnoxious in soliciting feedback each step of the way, especially negative feedback so you can incorporate it into the large scale, fully-tested version.

Failure shouldn’t be celebrated, but it should accepted as a reality of the growth process. The best leaders capitalize on their mistakes – or as Dale Carnegie put it, they profit from their losses. Ultimately, no failure is productive unless we learn from it.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, facilitator and author of the book Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to download Nathan's free white paper: Nine Ways to Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For.