07 Jul 2016 19:21 IST

Through failure to success

Failures help us innovate, and learn about ourselves, our assumptions and the need to do better

The ongoing Euro games have some interesting statistics on the winners

Most Wins: 23 — Germany

Most Goals Scored: 65 — Germany

Most Goals Conceded: 45 — again, Germany!

Here’s a team that was prepared to fail, in order to succeed.

These statistics are telling of a team that is prepared to raid the opponent’s territory, even at the risk of conceding a goal. Keep in mind that each goal they concede counts as a team failure, but through those tough moments, they pulled off success after success. The same drive is true of other sporting heroes as well.

So, as leaders, what can we gain through failures?

First attempt in learning

Failures help us learn — about ourselves, about what we need to do better, and about our assumptions and blind spots.

Late President Dr A P J Kalam often said, “If you fail, never give up because FAIL means First Attempt In Learning”.

In 2014, three IIT grads right out of college, founded a hardware start-up, Lumos. They wanted to bring to market the concept of smart switches that can automate all electrical appliances in a home.

In a remarkable demonstration of how honesty, humility and openness can help us learn from failure, co-founder of the start-up, Yash Kotak jotted down a candid list of mistakes they made while launching the product.

~ We were neither experts nor target users of the product we were building.

~ We did not do the due diligence on the idea before we started building it.

~ We let sunk cost bias affect our decisions about pivoting.

~ We were trying to do everything for everybody.

~ We underestimated hardware.

He and his team will be wiser and better prepared for success the next time around because of this attitude.

How do you develop this?

This attitude can be developed by cultivating humility to accept and learn from our mistakes and failures.

Sankaran Naren, CIO of ICICI Prudential Fund, speaks of an informal group of investors he became part of, which helped him become a better investor. “We share our mistakes openly”. Notice they aren’t talking about sharing their successes. Instead, they are holding up their mistakes as the best university for success. As the saying goes — bloody noses are the best teachers.

Failures help us innovate. Someone who hasn’t failed hasn’t tried much or achieved much. Silicon Valley’s success mantra has the word ‘fail’ appear not once but twice: Fail fast, fail cheap. Meaning, keep trying to get your idea out there; ‘don’t let your ship stay in the harbour’.

Tata Motors launched the Tata Nano with much fanfare, but its sales did not live up to the vision of its creators — partly because of its positioning as a ‘cheap car’.

But they quickly learnt from their failure and re-worked on the car, fitting it with better features, and repositioning it as a fun and smart choice. Customers have now started warming up to the product. A ruthless self-reflection of that early failure, led to innovation and paved a path to success.

Detrimental expertise

Ironically, the one challenge we may face in developing this attitude, is our expertise.

As we get better at something, we think we’re less likely to fail — we don’t want to be seen as failing. So we gradually start avoiding risks; we prefer to stick to a comfort zone.

To counter this, we need to cultivate and retain a beginner’s mind. As Naren says, it is “the ability to say ‘I will look like a fool, but in the short run, looking like a fool doesn’t worry me’.”

Test of conviction

Failures are a test of our convictions — is the path we chose to tread a whimsical one? Or is it one that we walk on when convenient? Is it formed by rock-solid convictions? Do we lose hope when we fail? Or do we have the strength to keep to the path we’ve chosen.

Today, as business management students, our conviction may be tested in our choice of subject. Tomorrow, it might be tested when we begin our job-search or validate our faith in a product, strategy or team-mate. Either way, standing by our conviction shows that we believe in our choice strongly enough to put our neck on the line and dream big… even if there is a possibility of failing.

As Joanne Lang, founder and CEO of aboutone.com put it, “I had to learn that if you are not feeling the emotion of failing, you are not trying enough new things or stretching yourself as far as you can… I had to learn that my greatest failure could be not aiming high enough, or not trying in the first place."

Successful failure

Successes can make even the most mediocre leader look good, but it is the dismal failure that exposes them and their weak convictions. Warren Buffet put it very graphically when he said, “It’s when the tide goes out that you know who has been swimming naked”.

Our education system gives failure a bad rap. The pressure of always looking like a success can delude us into a false sense of what real preparation for the world at work and life is.

A poor grade point average, or missing an aspired for placement should not define us. We can use failure as an experience to build the leadership muscle that will stand us in good stead at work and in life. Success is a poor teacher; failure is the crucible in which real competence and character are tested and strengthened.

To paraphrase Roosevelt, there is nothing to fear about failure but the fear itself.

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