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Learning, not Failure, is the Key to Lasting Success

Mar 18 2013 Jeff Wilson

By Jeff Wilson (Originally posted in 2011 on Sensei Wisdom)


There has been much discussion and writing recently suggesting and even claiming that failure is the key to success. So, my point of view on “Failure is the Key to Success”…


I’m sorry but are we actually serious about this statement?


This concept has no doubt come from the same rabble who so successfully created political correctness gems like, giving every kid a trophy in sports leagues, not just the winners; graduation ceremonies for every grade in school; outlawing the phrase “Merry Christmas”; photographic diversity; coddling Millenials in the workplace and the overwhelming belief that you can’t tell the truth because it may hurt someone’s feelings.


The last one in particular is the rallying cry of the liberal social media majority that succeeded in creating a Never Land environment nauseatingly full of insincere accolades, recommendations and glorious celebration of the mediocre to avoid business realities like say, oh I don’t know… profit, revenue and accountability?


I mean do we honestly want to say failure is the path to success? I don’t think we have fully thought this notion through… Will it become politically incorrect to win because someone has to lose?


So to that end, it’s been ages since I’ve been fired up to write about something so stupid – and potentially dangerous. So I’m going to pour myself a large scotch, pull on my favourite boots and stomp this idea out like Smokey the Bear does campfires before “succeed by failure” becomes an acceptable mantra.


Let’s shake some trees…


From Rewarded Mediocrity to Rewarded Failure

As mentioned above, we have already created a culture of rewarded mediocrity but do we really want to create one that encourages and rewards failure? Is the next step to make failure hip?


In my mind, we have once again focused on the wrong thing.


If we accept the statement “failure is the key to success” where does this potentially lead? The first risk is that everyone will interpret it differently and many will use it as an excuse for failure that could have otherwise been avoided. Further, and what we seem to forget, is that failure can be highly demoralizing to individuals and contagious within organizations.


Below is just a brief list of some types of failure organizations experience


Repetitive failure: Think RIM. Bunch of really, really smart folks with what used to be and still is in many ways a great solution. But they just aren’t listening to the market or their customers. This is a prime example of top down repetitive failure because learning, from the market or their own mistakes, seems to be absent from the strategy.




Failing Behaviour or Systemic Failure: Think any large Telco when it comes to customer experience. The risk of repetitive failure is that it becomes a behaviour, even enterprise policy. Let’s face it, human beings are known for doing things the same way over and over and expecting different results. Over time this becomes behaviourally driven in both individuals and organizational cultures. Failure becomes a behaviour when we loosen constraints on quality and accountability – if you aren’t held accountable what is the incentive to learn?


Momentum based failure: Think Recession of 2008. This is more a failure of morale that creates a cascade. In most organizations momentum based failures can be stopped fairly quickly and some, the large and powerful kinds like a market failure in 2008, last for years and take everyone with them because no one wants to be that lone dissenting voice to say “why have we all decided to go in this direction?”.


Viral failure: Think 2011 Boston Red Sox. I strongly believe in the contagious capability of emotions, particularly powerful emotions such as the ones created and shared in failure. Nobody likes to lose (except Emo kids). The risk is that the emotions created by failure spread and begin to demoralize a team or workforce. Good leadership can spot this and turn it around quickly, but the danger is that viral failure leads to repetitive failure if it goes unchecked.


Mob-forced failure: Think RIM’s Playbook. In the age of hyper and social media do we really want to trumpet failures as the key to success? Numerous cases abound where one small failure turned into a cascade driven by market opinion. This shortens and adds complexity to your ability to reverse a bad situation before it begins to cascade or gain momentum. As in Roman times, every Emperor and CEO must beware the mob.


leo-apothekerIncompetence: Think Leo Apotheker. Let’s face it, there is a lot of incompetence in the world, some of it even well meaning. But here I would cast an eye on two types:


  • Incompetent leadership: Leaders not understanding the capability of their teams, their customers or their brand. To take a farming example, if I get upset a pig can’t lay eggs, it’s my incompetence, not the pigs. Leaders can create failure in good organizations.
  • General incompetence: Okay, time to set aside the PC shield and be honest. Some people are completely useless. A portion of these folks are conscious of it and will most likely avoid what they know they cannot do while others are unconsciously incompetent. These folks are the real danger as they “Don’t know what they don’t know”. As for examples of the latter… I think we simply need to look at the overwhelming number of self-proclaimed social media experts in the world for a shining example of unconscious incompetence en masse.


Quitters: Think HP Touchpad. Let’s not forget that many companies fail because they exit the game too soon. Often times staying the course delivers the experience and learning necessary to long term success. The company that quits early potentially does much more harm than staying in the game, taking the lumps and using it to evolve the business and earn respect of media, partners, customers and potential customers. If you don’t have the game plan and the cojones to stay in the game, don’t play it.


So how is failure being interpreted by the people in your organization/? How are they failing? Do you believe that failure can still lead to success?


Let’s press on and investigate how learning is actually the game changer for sustainable success.


The Fool and the Wiseman


“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns

from the mistakes of others.” — Otto von Bismarck


In the same way, that failure can manifest itself in the above ways, so too can success. The key to changing from “failure is the key to success” to “success is the key to success” is our ability to continually learn from our own mistakes and more importantly learn from the mistakes of others. We can also learn equally well from our own and other’s successes to create even more success.


The company that fails to learn, learns to fail. So here are two methods we need to encourage learning to not only increase success, but reduce the chance of failure altogether.


Learn from your own mistakes


While according to many great scholars and strategist this makes us fools, but at least we are learning. Many leaders and companies do not learn at all. Learning from your own mistakes is what I consider the first level of awareness. The big opportunity here is for enterprise organizations to institutionalize their learning in some kind of socially driven internal community. In this way, large enterprise companies can begin to minimize widespread small failures by creating learning-based best practices.


Here are just a few ways to develop organizational competence for learning.


  • Ask good questions – because so many companies just ask the safe ones
  • Encourage post-mortems on all projects; successes and failures
  • Identify patterns of failure and success
  • Build competence and process around success patterns
  • Build processes to identify early signs of failure
  • Keep people accountable. Without accountability failure goes unchecked.
  • Provide incentive for learning, both academic and experiential.
  • Get outside advice from customers. Many times, we can’t see or warp our own failures. Customers see it all.


Learn from the mistakes (and successes!) of others


Learning from the mistakes of others is the second level of awareness. It is the ability to see beyond your own walls and seek answers to questions that have not been asked yet. Many times, the experience of others is out there waiting for us to find it. Here are just a few ways to find and capture it.


  • Assign an interdisciplinary team to this role; make them accountable.
  • Know what you are looking for
  • Look beyond your own industry and competitors for lessons.
  • Embrace research as an ongoing, essential part of strategy and organizational development, not just training.
  • Identify exemplars and map their processes. Many times success is due to disciplined process as much as failure is due to a lack of process.


So why do we focus on failure so much? 


Perhaps it because so many people fail or fear failing that we sow the seeds of acceptance ahead of time. Maybe the more we can get people to sympathize with our failures, the more likely they are to forgive them again and again until that becomes an accepted norm. Further, I believe acceptance of failure leads to lowered expectations and performance which hurts not just a single individual but organizational performance and market perception of the brand.




What I do know is that “failure is the key to success” is a flawed and dangerous statement. Instead I would ask you to consider replacing it with “learning is the key to success”. Failure will diminish in both scope and frequency, even in cultures of innovation where failure is an expected iterative outcome of R&D, as long as proactive learning is engrained in the organization.


Hard Fought Lessons


Now I could tell you I only followed the path of learning from others, but that would be far from true. I have made many mistakes, but thankfully rarely the same one twice. In each case I have learned and carried that experience forward for me, my team and my clients. I have also benefited tremendously from the experience of others and have used that insight to improve success and our ability to succeed many times over.


The two most important lessons of all though…


  • Never stop learning. Encourage and embrace it at every level of the organization.
  • Success breeds success. It is the Yin to Failure’s Yang. Never be afraid to win.


My last thought on this is, were I an executive in a large organization I would ask myself how I can begin to understand the ways my management and staff approach failure and success. Do we learn from it? If so, what are we learning?


For those interested in exploring the humorous side of Failure, check out Demotivators at Despair Inc.; a brilliant representation of the darker, dimmer side of human nature.


Your comments and insights are appreciated. Many thanks for reading

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About the Author

Jeff Wilson is a marketing futurist, abstract thinker and customer acquisition specialist. For over fifteen years Jeff’s work has assisted many leading global B2B and B2C enterprises to significantly improve how they attract and engage prospective customer to turn them into profitable relationships. Past clients include HP, IBM, Home Depot, DOW Chemical, ING Direct, Symantec, Syngenta and MV1 Canada. Jeff's work is based on a deep understanding of the emotional side of human behavior and how to influence people in online, mobile and social environments to drive measurable growth in qualified leads, improve conversion and build positive brand presence. Jeff’s professional writing and speaker career is growing. He is a frequent contributor to business and marketing publications as well as being a speaker on the topics of customer acquisition, influence, and customer experience design. When not working, Jeff can be found enjoying life to the fullest as a Dad to his 3 young children in Toronto, Canada.

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