Failing into Success

Photo by David C. Foster
Photo by David C. Foster

InTheMiddleMediumFailure, for many years, is something I tried to not think about and definitely wanted to avoid.  But since I tend to be a risk taker my perspective had to change.  Risk precedes failure.  Usually lots of failure.  Ultimately I dealt with failure and made it my friend.  It’s probably one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  Learning from failure can help build resilience.  Resilience is the foundation of tenacity.  Tenacity can lead to success by trial and error.

Failure is an event not a condition

Working in a high pressure logistics office forced me to accept failure as a point in time, not a constant condition.  We failed at something every day.  It was the mid-90s before the idea of quickly failing was popularized with the lean startup philosophy.  We were astute enough to realize we depended on too many uncontrollable variables.  Subsequently, we had many failures that we couldn’t predict.

It’s difficult to avoid something you can’t predict.

Our only option was to react more quickly to failure than our competition who faced the same unpredictable environment.  I said it over and over to my staff – we can’t avoid failure, but we can recover more quickly than anyone.

Failure is an educator

As I embraced failure as part of life and started thinking about it, I realized we all learn from our failures at a young age.  It’s built in to who we are.  We tend to do a poor job transferring that skill from childhood to adulthood or to the work environment.

My earliest realization of failing into success comes from second grade.  We recently moved to a new city and I walked to school.  Every day I passed through an apartment complex.  One afternoon, for no reason I can recall, I decided to climb the side of an apartment building on my way home from school.

It was a three level building with a grippy siding.  I didn’t make it far with my shoes on so I removed them and had another go.  It worked.  Barefoot and clinging to the side of this building I quickly made it to a second story balcony.  Poor planning on my part.   If I had started a few more feet to the left I could have avoided the balcony.  Too late now.  I traversed to the left and resumed my ascent.  It didn’t last long.

My fingers began hurting and it didn’t feel like I could hold on much longer.  Unexpectedly, my right ankle started burning.  I think the burning of the ankle overwhelmed my senses because it took a minute to realize I was on the ground, ankle snapped.

Breaking my ankle at a young age didn’t stop me from climbing.  In fact, I expanded what I would climb to include trees, bridges, rocks, and yes, more buildings.  What I learned was the importance of route planning and an exit strategy.  I’m not an expert climber by any stretch of the imagination.  But I’ve always climbed.  An exit strategy for free climbing usually means setting up your route in such a way that  rapid decent will lead to minimal trauma.  That’s what I mean by failing into success.

Failing Professionally

Step One

Back to business.  The first step in allowing yourself to fail, or your staff, is to remove blame.  In the logistics office we were all in this together.  We failed or succeeded as a team.  We adopted the the 1-10-100 rule as our framework.

The 1-10-100 Rule:  Identifying and correcting a mistake when it happens costs $1.  If we let it go to the next stage, it costs $10.  And if we let the customer discover the problem it costs us $100.
The values were relative but the example worked.  It made us watch for mistakes.  We still couldn’t prevent them, but we could focus on catching them early.  It was easier to recover at the $1 level than at the $100.

Step Two

Understand the consequences of failure.  Will someone actually be fired over a mistake?  Most likely not.  So what will happen when mistakes are made?  You have to understand this perspective from your boss and you have to define it for your direct reports.

Step Three

Create a simple process to review each failure.

  • Why did it happen?
  • How did it happen?
  • Why didn’t I spot it earlier?
  • How did I discover it?
  • Is there anything I can do differently to keep this from occurring again?

Summarized:  Evaluate.  Re-tool.  Re-launch.

Changing our perspective of failing changed our department in a positive way.  Instead of blaming each other we took the hit of a mistake together.  We created a collaborative environment.  We learned from our failures and used them to build a successful logistics office.

Final Thoughts

Think about failures in the short-term.  The majority of your mistakes have temporary consequences.  Most things aren’t life or death.

Don’t let failure define you in a negative way.  Learn from setbacks.  Don’t overreact to them.  If you keep repeating the same theme of mistakes then you really need to look at the why.  If it was a one-time screw up and learned from it – great – you are well on the way to using failure as a path toward success.  Keep going and growing.

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