Why you should celebrate your wins -- and losses


Fail Fast; Fail Often; Failing Your Way to Success

Failure should be a transitory state on the way to success.

In early February, Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced that it was abandoning its effort to build a commercial jetliner that could compete with the aircraft built by global aerospace giants Airbus and The Boeing Company. The project, originally known as the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, was started in 2008, with the first aircraft scheduled for delivery in 2013. It never happened.

While this obviously was a painful decision for the company’s leaders, it raises an important question: What took them so long?

The answer, most likely, is that admitting you’re wrong—admitting failure—can be difficult. That’s why many leading business thinkers preach a strategy known as “fail fast.”

Wikipedia notes that the term is commonly used to suggest “that businesses should undertake bold experiments to determine the long-term viability of a product or strategy, rather than proceeding cautiously and investing years in a doomed approach. It became adopted as a kind of ‘mantra’ within startup culture, i.e. ‘Fail fast, fail often.’”

The need to transform how individuals, teams and organizations work is as great today as it’s ever been. The pace at which change is taking place in many industries is head-spinning. But too many organizations are unprepared to experiment, learn and grow at the requisite dizzying speed.

One writer has even suggested that we designate February Fail Fast February: “a month of experimentation and progress,” when it’s also okay to mess up, so long as you move on quickly to the next challenge.

But failure can be terrifying, both emotionally and as a practical and financial matter.

In 1994, when I was a fresh-faced student at Harvard Business School, I had the privilege of being in the first class taught by the late Clayton Christensen, who popularized the theory of “disruptive innovation,” a contemporary update of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of “creative destruction.”

Professor Christensen began the first day of class by asking if anyone wanted to “open” the class by giving an answer to the casework problem that had been assigned in advance. I knew I had the answer, and nobody else was volunteering, so I raised my hand. He called on me right away. I gave a five-minute assessment of the situation and offered my recommendation.

He thanked me—and then proceeded to explain why I was wrong and what everyone could learn from my mistake. I was mortified, of course, and nearly 30 years later I still recall my embarrassment. Failing is hard enough; failing publicly is worse.

Nobody likes to fail because it suggests carelessness, incompetence, laziness, stupidity or some other inadequacy. Who wants that?

It also can trigger defensiveness, embarrassment, finger-pointing, and even shame.

Yet our strongest growth spurts often come out of our failures—but only if we learn from them.

Making failure a goal: So, why don’t we rewrite the script? Instead of doing everything possible to avoid failure, what if we plan to fail and make failure a goal? Would I have felt differently if I knew my professors were looking for uniquely flawed case presentations and would reward them with uniquely high grades?

I say “uniquely flawed” because the missteps would have to be new. If not, failing to learn from a previous mistake would affect the student’s grade in the opposite direction.

Experimenting instead of piloting: As part of the “failing” process, organizations need to lean more-heavily into trial and error.

An experiment is meant to test a hypothesis: to prove it right or wrong, to learn about a connection or lack of a connection. The purpose of an experiment is to test and learn. Pilot programs, on the other hand, are meant to confirm that something works as promised before scaling it up and rolling it out more broadly. It may sound like a small distinction, but it’s meaningful.

Back in the classroom, what if Professor Christensen had started the class with the following statement: “I want to do an experiment. I want to get three different approaches to the case on the table and see what we learn from each of them.” As experiments are testing procedures, there would have been no right or wrong answers, per se, only better and worse answers—regarding result.

Failure, whether during “Fail Fast February” or some other time of the year, should be a transitory state on the way to success.

But success, too, is transitory: If you don’t continue to try new things and learn from your failures as well as your successes, you’ll stagnate and get pushed aside. For proof, just consider that only one of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies when I graduated is still on the top 10 list today.


Deborah Lovich
I’m a Boston Consulting Group Managing Director & Senior Partner who leads the future of work program and a fellow with the company's think tank, BCG Henderson Institute. Since joining BCG in 1994, I’ve learned that the most important (and challenging) lever for change is people. I work with companies across the global economy on leadership enablement and culture change; HR issues along the entire employee life-cycle; and digital upskilling to unlock new sources of speed, productivity, value delivery, engagement, and impact. I’ve applied my practice inside BCG to create and scale a program to improve BCG's culture and work-life balance. Today, the program--known as PTO (predictability, teaming & open communication)--is a key factor in BCG's consistent ranking as one of the top companies to work for.

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