10 Ways Failure Leads to Success

Last Updated Feb 4, 2010 12:16 PM EST

From the time we're little, we're told that time heals all wounds. But nobody tells us it's only half true. When the wounds are inflicted by somebody else, fine. But when wounds are self-inflicted - also known as mistakes - all the time in the world won't heal them if we don't acknowledge them.

Failure is a little bit different, but the concept is similar. Failing to admit and learn from failure will only lead to more dramatic failure. The converse is also true: admitting and learning from failure will ultimately lead to success.

Unfortunately, many leaders seem to be allergic to the whole idea of admitting failure. I've seen it dozens of times with business leaders, political leaders, CEOs, and executives. Why that is, I don't know, but it may have something to do with how success gives leaders a big head, as we discussed in The Problem with Know-It-All Managers.

Regardless, systemic business failure, corporate failure, and personal failure, typically comes down to leaders or managers sticking their heads in the sand. Don't be one of them. Instead, master these ...
10 Ways Failure Leads to Success
  1. Change management. Ever try changing a company system or process that involves lots of people? If you have, then you've failed. And if you didn't learn from it, then you're still no good at it.
  2. Employee. What, you were a great employee out of the gate? Come on, tell the truth. You made mistakes; that's how you learned how things work, how to get things done, when to take a stand, and when to suck it up. Or maybe you didn't. Hmm.
  3. Turnarounds. Turnarounds start by clearly stating the problem, what went wrong. Sometimes it takes a few iterations, as with IBM, Apple, and HP. Some boards wait too long, as with Nortel. Are Sprint, Sony, and Dell next?
  4. Managing people. I don't care what business schools say; you don't learn this in school. You learn it on the job by making mistakes and learning what works and what doesn't. Period.
  5. The scientific method. It's built on the concept of making an assumption, experimenting, proving it wrong, and continuing until you can't prove it wrong.
  6. Innovation. The whole startup innovation loop is a learning curve based on trial and error. Sure, we love the Google and Facebook founder's stories, but far more common are entrepreneurs who failed multiple times before nailing it.
  7. Consulting. Um, not to get too specific, but the only reason I have any success as a consultant is because I made dozens of mistakes over two decades in corporations. It's called "learning the ropes."
  8. Strategic planning. Any strategic planning process must begin with an analysis of what's working and what isn't. The "W" in SWOT stands for weaknesses, and with good reason.
  9. Post mortems. If you don't do post mortems on lost customers and failed product launches and marketing campaigns, you're far less likely to get it right the next time.
  10. Relationships. If you need me to explain how failed relationships - personal, business, whatever - make you a better partner and team player, then you have bigger problems than I can help you with.
It may seem like a contradiction and it certainly is ironic, but thinking you're always right is a sure path to failure, while admitting and learning from failure inevitably leads to success.

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