Embracing Failure Successfully

Thursday, March 1, 2012 - 12:33

People hate failing, but Siimon Reynolds says there is much to be learnt when things don't work out, as Gerard McManus discovers.

In the vast industry that comprises self and organisational improvement, there are literally tens of thousands of book titles on the art and science of success, but very few on the subject of failure.

Perhaps it is human nature to want to emulate the success stories, to follow the exploits of achievers and the brilliant, rather than pick over the carcasses of that most unwanted cohort in modern society - losers.

Indeed, failures are the virtual lepers of the 21st century, which worships the cult of the celebrity.

Contributing to the imbalance is a new exegesis of success created by the media and internet, which has distorted and warped previous concepts of what constituted success - people can now make fortunes merely for being attractive, walking and pouting on a catwalk or for being unattractive, sitting and pouting on a "reality" TV show.

But consider this: when was the last time a former CEO of a failed company was asked to give the keynote address at a business conference? Is it even conceivable a failed actor would be asked to provide seminars on where he or she went wrong in Hollywood - even though acting has the biggest casualty rate of any profession?

The only time a person's reflections on failure appear to have value is when they have been supplanted by success.

Australian advertising wunderkind Siimon Reynolds defied conventional wisdom when he decided to study failure, resulting in the book, Why People Fail, flipping the concept on its head, and making a huge success out of it in the process.

Speaking to Mt from Los Angeles, Reynolds described failure as modern society's "great taboo".

"We don't like to admit it when we fail, we try and hide it and that's a great shame," Reynolds says.

"Not understanding where we fail also comes at great cost - there is not one lesson in 13 years of school on how to be more productive, and yet that one tool greatly increases a person's lifetime income."

It is a truism in life, in business, and in careers that more is (generally) learnt from mistakes than from extended periods where there are no ripples on the pond.

The qualification about learning from mistakes is important because the latest academic thinking on failure reveals that merely acknowledging failure, going through the motion of post-mortems, and even "celebrating" failure is fraught with danger.

Reynolds' attempts to understand the nature of failure involved reading hundreds of biographies of significant people in history and business, which produced a crucial insight: "Successful people fail more than failures."

The implications that failure is integral to success are more often than not inevitable. Therefore it should probably be integrated into any success plan.

By-products of failure include motivation, resilience, innovation, maturity and potentially, when used in the right way, greater risk taking.

In his 20s, Reynolds took the Australian advertising industry by storm, winning a string of creative awards, after which he built the Photon Group, a major league player in the international marketing business.

More recently he shifted into the field of coaching and mentoring where he attempts to make transformative changes for the better, mainly with business leaders.

"It was not always so, I was terrible when I was young, I was chronically disorganised," Reynolds says.

"I would forget to take schoolbooks home so in the end I would take everything, everyday, which was a huge waste of effort.

"I wasn't much better as I got older and I remember one of my friends once took a picture of my room because it was so messy, and there was so much junk in there, that he thought it was a work of art."

Frustrated with his chaotic life, Reynolds embarked on changing himself, resulting in a 25-year study in personal effectiveness and productivity improvements.

"I realised 70 per cent of all my problems were due to disorganisation. If I learnt to be better organised I wouldn't be missing appointments, I wouldn't need to rush things and I wouldn't be letting people down on deadlines and other tasks," he says.

"Being disorganised is enormously stressful … you are constantly in a situation where you are not able to get things done, and you have no opportunity for thinking time."

Reynolds' book includes a raft of suggestions to turn around 16 different areas of non-performance, ranging from lack of persistence to absence of thinking time. Perhaps the most important contributor to failure concerns a lack of daily rituals.

Averse to speakers and motivators who are skilled at pumping people with dreams and adrenalin for a few days or weeks, only to see those ideals dashed some time after, Reynolds says incremental improvement and consistency in progress are far more important.

"It is the daily rituals that get you moving forward, and the truth is that if you don't do that, the rest is immaterial," he says.

"By doing the same things each day, they become subservient to the way we feel because some days you don't feel like doing things.

"Businesses complain about absenteeism, but a far greater problem is presenteeism - employees who are not engaged during the day."

While most sales people and larger businesses accept failure is a necessary ingredient for success, Reynolds takes the necessity of failing another step, again arguing, "we need to re-educate ourselves to seek failure out and to fail faster".

He quotes leadership guru John Maxwell, who came up with the concept of preparedness to fail as "failing forward" - to accept failure, but to continue to progress.

"Failure is not final - we need to fail early, fail often and fail forward."

Failing to heed lessons can prove costly

Failure is not an event that can be avoided. Statistically speaking, if you give an accident enough opportunities to happen, it will happen. Thus failure should be seen as part of a continuum put in context inside a person's life or inside the life cycle of a business organisation, rather than as a specific event. (Kanter's Law: Anything can look like a failure in the middle.)

Some failures are catastrophic and have the capacity to terminate an organisation and need to be recognised as such. An airline with a pattern of crashing is likely to be shut down; a business engaging in fraud or becoming bankrupt will be wound up. An unhealthy fear of failure is one thing, thinking there can be business as usual when there cannot is something else.

Unless there are lessons learned then failure becomes the common experience - in other words, people who keep doing the same thing expecting different results are bound to be perpetually disappointed.

Some failure can be "good" according to research by the Harvard Business Review. Intelligent failures can be good in experimentation and entrepreneurial ventures, but unacceptable in surgery or manufacturing.

Success is often hidden inside failure - many things were done well, but some bad decisions turned the venture sour. Conversely, failure can be embedded inside successful ventures - and post-mortems should include examinations of where things went wrong and where they could have gone wrong.

Seeing the light

One of the classic stories about success and failure is that of US inventor Thomas Edison, who described genius as one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.

Edison conducted more than 9000 separate experiments to find the right filament for an incandescent light bulb, before he found carbonised bamboo was the ideal material.

But what is often forgotten is after experimenting with carbon filaments from materials such as cotton, linen and wood, it was Edison's recollection of handling a few threads of bamboo during a fishing trip two years beforehand that gave the inventor the inspiration to try it.

Conclusion: perspiration, inspiration and recreation.