Failing Your Way to Success?

Doug-Headshot Failing Your Way to Success?
Douglas Duncan, Vice President – Chief Information Officer, Columbia Insurance Group

How many times have you heard lately that is “okay to fail?”  I have said it.  People I respect very much say it.  What just yesterday felt counter-intuitive and even revolutionary is becoming in itself old hat.

We need a fresher way to delve into this concept, and fresher ways to communicate it and get traction within our organization.  What does it really mean, and is it really okay?

In business as well as life, the message often is “do more, do it right, do it now,” or the more direct version, “Do more right now!”

The first workflow system I built failed.  Sure, it did what the users asked of it, but not in a way that really enhanced their job.  But what my team and I learned from that failure was what to change, what to keep, and most importantly, how to position it with the user community.

The pain or disappointment of not succeeding at something serves as a goad to better performance the next time.  However, that can come across as negative, or learning trough pain.  That logic is also behind corporal punishment and even bullying.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – or else!  Failure informs.  It educates.  It can teach a harsh lesson, and is memorable, but maybe in a bad way.  How shall we better frame this discussion?

The goal of business is not to fail, but to succeed.  To succeed beyond all expectations.  To be freaking fabulous. 

Many of us have learned through experience that the shortest distance to success is not usually a straight line, but rather one that wanders a bit.  We try out different approaches, see what works, what does not work, and what alternatives might be available.

When I was an investigator with the government, I thought we really needed a better set of templates with which to build the legal cases against violators of our regulations.  Through trial and error I discovered what we really needed was a whole new system to capture evidence, match it to violations, and produce a custom document suitable for court.  Going in, I had no idea that was what we needed because it didn’t exist yet!  Yet by creating this new tool I solved a much bigger problem, and incidentally started myself on a new career!

Gently embracing failure recognizes that while failure is not desirable in the macro sense, it can be beneficial in a tactical sense.  In addition to providing a learning opportunity, acceptance of failure can create a work environment where people feel free to be creative and try different things.

Failing Fast for a Better Life?

A more updated and nuanced view of this is to “fail fast”.  This reinforces that the purpose of failing is to get better, not as an end goal, but as a way to get to it more quickly.

Paired with failing fast is failing frequently.  The sooner you fail, the sooner you have an opportunity to pick yourself up and try again quickly.  Quick, small failures are better than a bigger failure delayed.

Confucius is attributed with, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”  This concept goes way back!

The lesson we want to teach is:

  • Success is the long term goal
  • In the short term, trying different things is okay
  • Not everything we try needs to be successful, as long as we learn from it
  • Learning means we move ever closer to success

This is our “Try Cycle”.  Try something out.  Learn from the outcomes.  Make changes.  Try it out again.

Try.  Learn. Change. Try again.