Fail Forward: How Failure Creates Forward Momentum and Can Be Your Greatest Asset 

Your next failure may be the very catalyst for your next great success.

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If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that failure is a part of life. If we never failed at anything, we'd never achieve anything. When you learn to ski, you may spend a great deal of time falling; if you don't, you're probably not progressing. But it's continually getting back up with a positive attitude that determines the outcome. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything. Do not be afraid to make mistakes provided you do not make the same one twice."

Look at Failure as an Opportunity

I understood that principle in life, but as far as a business principle, I learned that later on. If you look at failure as a negative thing, it really starts to change the dynamic of your view on business. You may be working from a place of fear instead of a place of opportunity. You wouldn't be alone in your fear of failure in business: 90% of small businesses end up in failure.

Sometimes failure is what's necessary in order to break through to the next step. Imagine you are a wrestler in high school and you lose the county championship in your junior year. You feel bad, everybody saw it, but that gives you the motivation to work harder next year, to hit the gym and work out a little bit more. By your senior year, you have a shot at winning the championship. Athletes seem to naturally have that type of mentality, especially high-performance athletes, like the Michael Jordans of the world, but in business, it's the same thing.

A Fail Forward Philosophy Thrives in a "No-blame" Culture

At my company, we like to say that failure allows us the ability to grow, or as I call it, fail forward. For example, we found a mistake on one of our client's websites. I made a call to the client, apologized and let them know that it wouldn't happen again. To preserve the relationship, I was honest and transparent and took responsibility for the error. It was a human mistake. But when I made a commitment to the client saying that it won't happen again, I had to stand by that. So from there, our engineering team wrote a script that runs through every one of our clients' websites, every single day, making sure that their sites have correct phone numbers and those phone numbers validate. This 'failure' caused us to create a new system, which ended up benefiting all of our clients. And, it allowed me to make sure that I never have to make a call like that again.

By using our failure as a learning opportunity and creating new systems and processes, we may have saved thousands of dollars in potentially lost revenue for future clients. A fail forward philosophy thrives in a "no blame" culture. If people are worried they will get fired if they make a mistake, they will be less likely to take risks. Worse, employees are not apt to admit failures and more likely to try to cover them up. A no-blame culture is the cure and fosters innovation in this type of environment.

There are limitations to our ability to deal with failure in a positive way. In one paper, scientists found that failing 15% of the time and succeeding the other 85% is the best way to gain new skills and information. If the challenge is too easy, then we don't learn, if it's too hard, we may just give up. Finding that sweet spot is key. The Eighty Five Percent rule is a good foundation for any training and development you may do at your company.

Michael Jordan admits, "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

Here are five ways to create a fail forward culture.

  • Accept that failure is a part of life, as is success
  • Realize that if you don't fail, you are not taking risks to make progress
  • Think of failure as a stepping stone
  • Learn from failure and make changes to fix mistakes
  • Foster a no-blame culture

Perfection is the enemy of progress, a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill. If you place too much focus on doing things perfectly, you become fearful of making mistakes and you will never make any progress. Embrace imperfection, learn from failure and step forward into success. Remember, your next failure may be the very catalyst for your next great success.

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