Failure As A Strategy For Success

I’m reading a new book called Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure. It’s a fantastic book, and if you’re a CEO or CTO of a startup, or an innovator, or anyone who tries new things, you should read it.

In the book, author Tim Harford makes the case that trial-and-error, done intelligently, constantly outperforms single-mindedness at solving problems and creating success. And as he puts it, the more complex the problem at hand, the more effective trial and error becomes relative to the alternatives.

What Tim makes the case for is not executing a single, top-down, brilliantly designed idea, but rather trying lots of little things simultaneously, constantly evaluating what is working, and discarding whatever is not.

Tim outlines what he calls “the essential steps for adapting”, which can be seen working effectively in business, in research and in government, as well as in nature itself. These are:

1) try new things

2) expect that some of these things will fail

3) make sure your failures are survivable

4) make sure you know when you’ve failed

That to me is the basic recipe for success as an innovator/entrepreneur. It’s not so much about coming up with a brilliant idea and executing it masterfully. It’s much more about trying different combinations and solutions and observing the results, and then acting on those observations.

Take a bunch of best guesses, see which ones fail and which ones look promising, and recalibrate based on the results. (You have to try more than one thing at a time of course, or else there will be nothing to compare your results against. How can you know whether something is working unless you can compare it to something else?)

The more you can do this, the cheaper you can do this, and the faster you can do this, the more you succeed in making the great big discoveries that lead to huge successes.

And the more you try to avoid any sort of failure, the more you end up hampering this discovery process, and the results that come from it.

So you have to embrace failure as part of your gameplan in order to succeed. The real trick is not to avoid failure, but to make each failing small enough that it doesn’t engulf your whole operation (that’s #3 in the list above – make sure your failures are survivable).

I’ve always felt this to be the case, and I’ve often behaved accordingly (see my post on The Poor-Man’s Incubator of One). But I always felt like I had to apologize for this, like I was somehow being reckless acting this way. Now I see it isn’t reckless, there’s actually science behind this, and I feel liberated. Liberated to… FAIL. And in doing so, find my way to success.

The faster and cheaper we fail, the faster (and cheaper) we succeed.

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Profile Photo Jeff Ribeira

“Liberated to fail” – love it! Personally, I’ve always wished we lived in a more “failure-tolerant” culture/society. It can sometimes be tough convincing others that failure indeed is an integral part of success. I’ve also always loved the quote, although the name of the author escapes me at the moment: “the opposite of success is not failure. The opposite of success is not trying.”

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Profile Photo Alicia Mazzara

These are some great reasons to rethink our notions of failure. As much as I really hate failing (like Jeff said, it’s really frowned upon in our culture), I always learn way more from those failures than from my successes.

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Profile Photo John Geraci

Right Alicia – and sometimes “learning from failure” can just mean crossing something off your list of possible solutions to your problem. As long as you do it cheaply and quickly, you’re learning what works and what doesn’t, and moving forward. The key is to not get bogged down with one approach, without good data as to whether it really is the best solution or not. I think many people do that in an effort to avoid the stigma of “failure”. We have to de-stigmatize failure so people, companies and organizations can make it part of their approach to learning.

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Profile Photo Patricia Paul

Great post! I was working on a project earlier this week where I needed to “teach” myself how to do something on the computer. With each misstep or wrong click, I found myself getting closer to the solution. I just had to keep trying different ways and seeing what the results were and then modifiying my actions from there. As long as I focused on my goal, and kept heading towards it, I was succeeding and learning. It is a test of patience and real focus though not to get bogged down in the “missteps” or “small failures”. However, if you approach a project and will not allow yourself any “small failures”, you can become locked in a mode of no activity at all.

Maybe this was a sign that I should incorporate this way of thinking into my everyday life and allow for little failures and blunders in an effort to move forward and succeed.

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