The Benefits of Failure
Failure can be a good, persuasive teacher.
Posted August 15, 2019
One of the best known and most eloquent proponents of failure is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who on numerous occasions has spoken about the importance of failure and the lessons it teaches. They're summarized nicely in this piece in Business Insider. Having taken major risks over the years with Amazon, of course, Bezos refers to failure and invention as "inseparable twins."
He goes on to say, "To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance it's going to work, it's not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there." Yep, having worked for years in a large organization, couldn't agree more.
Here are three reasons, from a management perspective, why failure has significant upside.
It's an integral element of innovation.
As Bezos and countless other entrepreneurs recognize, innovation and failure go hand-in-hand. There's little reward without risk. How many major innovations are perfectly created completely intact on the first try? I'd hazard to guess, darn few.
You may well fail much, or even most, of the time. But the benefits of real innovative success can be spectacular. "Given a 10 percent chance of a 100 times payoff," Bezos has said, "you should take that bet every time."
It can create a more comfortable and productive management environment.
Over the course of a long business career, I worked for people who showed many different attitudes toward failure. I worked for some who had a more relaxed attitude and encouraged creativity and thoughtful risk-taking. I also worked for some who were wicked anxious, even paranoid, about failure. I can say without reservation that the more relaxed attitude was the more productive working environment. Unless you prefer to dine on a steady diet of stress for breakfast.
It's an important part of management development.
This is my own story, and without going into all the unpleasant details, let's just say that early in my management career a situation involved a manager who was reporting to me and an employee evaluation that wasn't done when it should have been. The manager had been working on another large project for me, was on another deadline, and asked me if she could postpone the employee's evaluation for a few days.
Being agreeable but not smart, I said OK and then failed to follow up as diligently as I should have, and what ended up resulting was a messy bouillabaisse of missed deadlines, year-end bonus confusion, and lawsuit threats.
At the end of the day, the failure was clearly, squarely, and directly nobody's but mine: a failure of management accountability. It taught me something valuable. Once the (understandable) recriminations had subsided, I resolved to do things much differently. Over the next couple of decades and 100+ employee evaluations, I never missed an evaluation deadline, nor did anyone who worked for me, by so much as a minute.
While the details of such stories may vary, I doubt the general flavor of this memory is unusual, as management often takes a while to figure out.
Failure can be a good, persuasive teacher. I may not always have liked her lessons, but as time went on, I appreciated them.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.