When Failure is Good

A long, long time ago, I thought I was invincible. A typical teenager. Do you know someone like this?

I was eighteen years old and on my third year as a chemical engineering student in a selective university. My grades were always better than most so I was relaxed about passing my exams. I was not aiming to be at the top. After all I was among the best in the country already.

Exam week was coming. I had enough of studying. So when my friends came along and told me they were going to a far-flung location to do ‘mission’ work, I was intrigued. It sounded like an adventure, as well as actually helping local residents. Why not? So off I went that weekend to join my friends.

We came back on Sunday afternoon bone-tired.

The exam results were predictable. Even on my best subjects, my grades dipped. And disaster struck. I failed one subject!

That was enough to wake me up from my complacency. Feeling embarrassed and letting others down weighed on me. I also developed an intense dislike for missing my own goals.

That early brush with failure transformed my attitude. I set my goals higher. I developed laser-like focus during the last years in university. I changed from a ‘good enough’ student to an exemplary one and the results came with it.

That failure was nothing compared to later disappointments in life and at work, but recovering fast, adapting and adopting new ideas and approaches have become second nature to me.

As a young process engineer in San Rafael, California, I designed and set-up the first assembly process for a number of surface mount devices in our division. The route to the successful pilot after only four months, and the first mass production line shortly after, was littered by failed experiments. The failed experiments paved the road to success!

How can we test our creativity and ability to develop solutions to problems if we have not failed?

Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

My attitude to failure has changed. Instead of focusing on the failure, I get energised about finding better ways to solve a problem. From being a catalyst to prove I can do better, I now see failure as a natural ingredient for creativity, innovation and nimbleness. That means, being great at solving complex and ‘wicked’ problems and being fast at recovering from setbacks.

Thomas J Watson, the founder of IBM, once said, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

In Moonshots, anyone? I wrote about Astro Teller, Head of Google X, who also said that, “Being afraid to fail is almost a guarantee of the glass ceiling of what can be achieved.”

This week, Gail Kelly, CEO of the Westpac Group, challenged attendees at a networking lunch: “How are you going to learn and how are you going to innovate unless you fail? You need to fail fast, quickly and then get up and off you go again.”

What have you learned from failure? Can you share your success stories derived from failures?

What would you do differently as a leader to remove the fear of failure in your organisation?

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