When leading a business, efforts are typically made with success in mind. Decision-making is informed by high hopes, positivity, and the determination to grow. Sure, failure is seemingly inevitable, but that’s what helps us grow — just keep looking forward, keep the foot on the neck, have urgency all the time, and try, try again, right? Not exactly. This kind of tunneled thinking could actually be the downfall of your people and, thus, your company. When you treat failure like it’s bound to happen and focus all of your energy toward success, you risk cementing that fate through death by a thousand paper cuts, or worse, a big catastrophic avoidable surprise. Sustainable success comes from facing failure instead of running from it.
The Great Growth Myth
Even before the advent of Silicon Valley, there has been this universal understanding of failure as “part of the journey.” It’s thought to be necessary — part of the entrepreneur’s journey, the startup lifecycle, and the innovation highway. You cannot succeed if you do not first fail. As far as I am concerned, this is a myth. Failure can provide lessons and growth, but it is not a necessary step on the ladder to success. It is not unavoidable. Those who promote this myth will say that hindsight gained from failure is invaluable and cannot be achieved in any other way, but that is simply not the case.
Hindsight is great, but what’s better is perspective — foresight. You can look for problems before they happen so that you still obtain awareness but without any needless collapse. Unfortunately, it appears this failure myth has grown deep roots in business. With 50% of all startups failing and 75% of the venture capital firms that support those startups going belly up, it appears that people aren’t asking the right questions from the beginning. We don’t shape our growth and transformation strategies by identifying possible failures. We think we create cultures where failure is acceptable, but why not create cultures where it’s celebrated to bring up those potential pitfalls early, often, and consistently? Why not let failure potential guide us?
For over a decade, my team and I have helped founders, CMOs, CEOs, and businesses grow and evolve through new innovations, inflection points, and growth moments. At the very core of our company is a focus on beating failure, which has made those successes possible. We often see the fallout of what happens when the right questions aren’t asked by our client partners before they shift the mindset and ask for our partnership.
Why Do Businesses Fail?
Businesses fail when people fail to ask the right questions or get perspective on potential challenges for the future. Ask any business owner or leader what their idea of success is, and they will be able to give you a detailed account of their strategy, SMART goals, KPIs, OKRs, and every other aspect of what success means to them.
Ask that same person what failure means, and chances are, they will be far less detailed in their response. It is this undefined concept of failure that leads to failure itself. We know what it takes to climb but not what it takes to fall. In constructing our idea of success, we make certain assumptions, and it is these assumptions that will be our invisible tripwires. Creating strategies for success is great, but how do you know that strategy is effective if you don’t consider possible problems? Without acknowledging the chance of failure, how do you define the right methods to achieve your goals? The antidote to this uncertainty is clarity.
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Clarity Is the Opposite of Failure
Failure happens when we are unclear about the path ahead — when there are knowledge gaps and a lack of alignment that went unseen because we didn’t look for it. While many may feel that approaching success from the perspective of failure is “negative” and adds unnecessary anxiety, the opposite is actually true. It’s important to worry about things that haven’t happened yet. A great company culture is one with maximum clarity, and the only way to get maximum clarity is to encourage and practice this beat failure mindset.
My team spends a lot of time thinking about failure, yet we remain highly optimistic. When we ask questions about what it would take to fail for both our clients and us, we start to build muscle memory around those events. Most become avoidable, but if and when they happen, like a global shutdown from a pandemic, they are far less stressful to overcome because we’ve already planned around those eventualities. As success is not the opposite of failure, realism and foresight are not the opposites of optimism and positivity. The consideration of failure is a much more meaningful part of the journey to success than the event of failure.
When we encourage people to understand what might make them and their businesses fail, we emphasize the value of clarity. A business that focuses solely on success can breed a culture of fear. Your team members have never considered the possibility of failure, so, in their minds, it must be the ultimate catastrophe. Not knowing is far worse than knowing. Having clarity puts you and your team in the best position to truly achieve your goals. It will empower and enlighten you to greater possibilities.
Focus on Prevention
Rather than guiding your team with KPIs and OKRs, consider encouraging them to achieve prevention. Have your performance reviews structured around all the failures your team prevented rather than the successes they believe they accomplished. Your team should not look for ways to achieve goals. They should look for the potential obstacles to those goals, figure them out, and find ways to mitigate them.
To achieve clarity, my team operates around a “Beat Failure” mindset. We stare failure in the face, evaluate potential risks, and use those insights as a strategic advantage to create strategies and plans for execution. The response to failure does not have to be some abstract ethos — it can be quantified, optimized, and prioritized. When building your Beat Failure plan, looking for failure and identifying risk is only the first step. Next, consider the likelihood of each issue and the catastrophic effects if it came true, and develop your response from there. This binary approach will also give you a prioritization so that you aren’t in the weeds all the time. Once you determine necessary prevention measures, delegate tasks to your team members — this ensures accountability so that one person is tied to preventing a failure, not two, not a group. And sometimes, this visibility can even show gaps in the team. Restructure the very notion of obstacles, and show your team that challenges are the best opportunities for long-lasting success.
Whether or not we are comfortable thinking and talking about failure, it is vital to our success that we do so. Rather than mollifying ourselves with the idea that failure is necessary, we should recognize that we have far more control. We have the capability to evade failure altogether, and it starts by asking the right questions.