Why It’s Important to Help Leaders Learn Fast From Failure

by Thor Ernstsson
June 13, 2019

From a young age, we are programmed to avoid failure. Or we’re taught that it’s OK to fail as long as we don’t make the same mistake twice. But as we grow up and enter the working world, failure has different consequences.  

Failure, the thinking goes, comes at a high price professionally. It’s often expensive for employers and it can be costly to career prospects and growth. Instead of learning from mistakes and brushing them off as steps toward success, we avoid them at all costs. Some executives go to great lengths to hide mistakes or pretend they were always part of the master plan.

Given the stigma and fear attached to failing, often corporate leaders prefer to take a careful approach to decision-making, taking fewer risks and avoiding failure in the process. What if instead we embraced failure in a way that leads to success?

Ray Dalio in his book Principles shares a great example of how he turned failure into a management tool. He took one employee’s memorable mistake at Bridgewater Financial and used it as a lesson for future decision making: 

Ross, who was in charge of trading at the time, forgot to put in a trade for a client and the money just sat there in cash. By the time the mistake was discovered, the damage was several hundred thousand dollars.

Ray could have fired Ross for that mistake, but he realized that would encourage other employees to hide their mistakes, which might lead to bigger and more costly errors. Instead, Bridgewater Financial implemented an ‘error log’ where mistakes were recorded and followed up on. As mistakes were tracked, the team learned from each one, resulting in fewer mistakes and continual improvement. This became their first management tool at Bridgewater Financial.

Failure is unavoidable. Learning quickly from failure is a necessity. And bonus: It helps you launch more successful products.

From Flop to Fruition: How Can Failing Lead to Success?

History is littered with powerful examples of how failure led to success. Thomas Edison created 10,000 prototypes before creating the lightbulb. The Beatles were once turned down by a record label that said they had no future in show business. J.K. Rowling faced 12 rejections from publishing houses before finally selling Harry Potter. Walt Disney was fired from his first job for not having enough imagination.

Failing as a CEO or corporate leader can be a useful decision-making tool and a critical building block for innovation — depending on the relationship you have with it.

“The whole premise around failure is that every single entrepreneur is going to fail multiple times, and the successful ones … use failure as a springboard instead of a stop sign,” says John Assaraf, CEO of NeuroGym and a New York Times best-selling author. “How they define failure determines how they feel about it – whether they continue taking action or stop dead in their tracks.”

Failure also has lasting implications on growth opportunities. It’s important to recognize what’s wrong with an idea or product before a big launch. Failure saves you from diving too deep into product development or delivery that isn’t quite right for the market you’re selling to. Is it missing important features? Are you selling to the wrong audience? Consider mistakes as data points telling you what’s not quite right — and how to iterate to get where you need to go.

Speed-to-insight is important, too. If you don’t learn fast from failure, then you can’t move quickly enough to keep up with an ever-evolving marketplace. While you’re thinking up your next brilliant move, someone else may create or launch a similar product.

One way to learn fast and uncover blind spots is to experiment quickly. It may sound scary, but ready or not, that’s when you discover the good, the bad, and the ugly about your idea. As Saturday Night Live Creator and Producer Lorne Michaels brilliantly put it, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. It goes on because it’s 11:30.”

The sooner you take the risk of getting your product out there, the sooner you learn. 

Get Data And Test Your Product With Real Users

So, how do you accept failure, learn fast, and put your learnings to work without risking your company and its funding?

Fail intelligently. Adopting the concept of intelligent failure leads to agility, better risk-taking abilities, and the building of customer-centric products.

Identify product problems as soon as possible. Sometimes a pivot or slight modification makes all the difference between a giant miss and big success. Often times, there may be multiple failures before you find the right formula that works. Learn from each mistake, so that you won’t repeat them in the next iteration of the product.

Perhaps most importantly: You need data to do this. It’s difficult to predict the outcome of a new idea or validate the need, particularly if you’re bringing something completely new to the marketplace. There’s no historical usage data to rely on and consumer needs and preferences are always changing.

Running tests with real users can give CEOs and corporate leaders the data they need to know if a product has real growth potential or if it needs to be refined. Using Alpha’s platform to run experiments and generate qualitative and quantitative data about your ideas, products, and customers you can make those data-driven decisions, fast.

Validating can be done by using several effective research methods, including discovery surveys and interviews, analyzing users of competitive products, and creating visual prototypes or landing pages. That research data and collection of insights informs decisions with customer wants and needs in mind, so companies can build products that are right for their customers — and not just for themselves.

There’s certainly more at stake than when we were children, but the concept remains the same: Innovation, by definition, requires us to try new things and that often leads to failure. How can we give ourselves permission to fail and what can we learn from our failures?

Thor Ernstsson

Thor is the Founder and CEO of Alpha, the on-demand insights platform enabling teams to make data-driven decisions about users, products, and new markets.