Well, he was a racing driver. And it’s an interesting idea, when applied to success and failure. I recently attended a seminar on Valuing Failure, which is part of the RSA’s Failure initiative. This seeks to find what we can learn from failure – such an emotive word – and how we can use failure as a driver for success.
If we just play it safe, we will stay in our comfort zone, and succeed at what we know. Will that enable us, as business people (or just people) to survive long term? I suggest not, as change, being inevitable, will impact on our cosy existence. Competitors will nibble away at our market share, economic factors will change, and if we stay doing what we know, our businesses will gradually wither and die.
To stop that we have to do something new – something we don’t know, or don’t know enough. This invites failure, which, if managed properly, should involve learning, adapting and ultimately succeeding in this new way.
Notice I said, “if managed properly”, which seems often not to be true. So often insufficient time and resource is put into discovering what boundaries should be put into place, what information needs to be assembled, and what plans need to be made before activity is started. And then failure often happens because that new activity was not managed to allow failure but avoid catastrophe – something which I try and build into any client strategy that we facilitate. The idea is that we can push through the failure, by learning, adapting and building – to a new bigger success zone. Danish physicist Neils Bohr defined as expert as “ a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field”, and that has an insight into managing new things – make them very narrowly defined, so they cannot impact on the main business.
We may need to push hard and persistently, and sometimes we have to realise that there is no way through – or at least, not in that direction. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it!” WC Fields, this time. But if you do quit, just quit at that particular activity, don’t stop trying to innovate altogether. Just change direction.
However you think about it, surely there’s a learning point here that regularly exploring the boundaries of where you are, testing them hard, pushing through where you can, expands the capability of a firm to survive and grow (and the people running those firms too). It should produce a habit of Explore – Fail – Innovate – Consolidate – Explore – Fail – Innovate – etc. This produces an entrepreneurial mindset, and I think serial entrepreneurs exhibit these characteristics strongly. Innovation and entrepreneurship are ways of thinking that can be learnt just like any other. This is one insight into how that is done.
Innovators expect failure – it is natural and inevitable at some point in everyone’s life anyway. Innovators view failure as opportunity, learning and information. It is unhelpful for us as individuals and business people to stigmatise failure and ourselves as failures, if that prevents us from growing our businesses and ourselves. We simply need better strategies so we avoid catastrophes but allow failure – and its associated benefits.