Brandt On Leadership -- The Value Of Failure

Dec. 21, 2004
Pitfalls are full of lessons about your products, your company and yourself.

In a sermon some years back, a pastor offered the following observation: Failure is the key to the kingdom inside. Success may require hard work and persistence, he explained, but it also demands such single-minded devotion that it usually teaches us next to nothing about ourselves. Only through failure -- through the painful acknowledgment that this time we weren't swift, strong or smart enough -- do we learn who we are, what we believe, and what we can become. The same is true in business, though few of us like to admit it. We often talk a good game about encouraging risk and accepting failure, but in truth we focus far more on the possibility and glory of success than on what we can learn from the consistent, predictable reality of failure. Last week, in fact, a CEO told me his firm's philosophy about risk and failure: "If somebody in our company takes a risk, we give them a gold star," he said. "And if they get three gold stars, we fire them." Unfortunately, the path to success is usually littered with dozens if not hundreds of gold stars. And while only an idiot would advise you to embrace failure, it can be the key to the kingdom inside a business, too, if only we can learn how to profit from our mistakes: Your product: It's a rare product misfire that results from everything going wrong at the same time; indeed, successful products are often simply revamped failures. If you fail, pull together a group of customers who didn't buy and ask them, "Why not?" It's important to have actual conversations with these customers; surveys too often use "price" as a catchall for a multitude of product-launch sins. Ask your non-buyers:

  • Did the product address a customer need that customers don't yet perceive?
  • Does a competitor's product work better or offer a more complete solution?
  • Was it the product that wasn't ready, or was it the launch process itself?
Get these questions answered -- along with a hundred more -- and your failure may become a success sooner than you think. Your company: More often than not, a failed product launch says more about the company itself than about the product or the people behind it. Why? Because these failures result not so much from intellectual mistakes but from cultural breakdowns. Root causes can include:
  • Insular cultures that develop products in-house, without consulting customers and suppliers;
  • Fearful cultures in which no one feels safe to point out that the emperor has no clothes (i.e., that a product launch is headed in the wrong direction); and
  • Secretive cultures in which power and product development roles are jealously guarded, making sure that product development is a series of disjointed steps instead of a holistic, solution-focused process.
Yourself: Everything else pales to what a failure tells you about yourself and your leadership style:
  • Will you start counting gold stars? Or will you hand out even more of them -- combined with coaching on risk management?
  • Will you despair of ever launching into this market? Or will you personally call up your five biggest non-customers and ask, "Where did we go wrong?"
  • Most importantly, will you sidestep responsibility for this failure, burying it in some budgetary backwater? Or will you remain fully engaged and accountable to both your management and your team, looking for the keys -- and the self-knowledge -- that only failure can unlock?
John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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