5 steps to make failure your friend

October 11, 2013

Failure is not what gets us stuck.

We get stuck when we allow ourselves to believe that failure diminishes us as people, that successful human beings don’t fail. We get stuck when we listen to that inner critic who says, you’re not good enough if we miss the right answer or a desired goal.

But everybody fails. The secret is that the most successful people aren’t afraid of failing because they don’t waste their mistakes. When they mess up like the rest of us, they become failure detectives, taking care to analyze what didn’t go right and to learn from it.

Abraham Lincoln failed in business twice, lost eight elections, and suffered a nervous breakdown before he became the 16th American president.  Walt Disney went bankrupt with his first animation studio, lost money on three of his first five feature films, and, at his lowest point, didn’t make his rent. Similarly, Stephen King’s first novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before it became the bestselling modern horror classic it is today.

Want to “fail” like Abe or Walt or Stephen? Let’s talk about how.

Here’s what’s useful about failure:
• it reveals information about where we need more focus or information, and
• it makes us sharper by exposing overconfidence and complacency (two attitudes that get in the way of success).

The bottom line is that failing deepens our understanding of how it all works — including ourselves. That is active learning.

Actively learning from failure means we develop competence that can transfer to other problems in other times and places.

The Museum of Failed Products is a perfect example. Each week, two or three teams of failure detectives visit a large warehouse outside of Ann Arbor. These product designers and brand executives pay a $5000 fee to museum owner GfK Consulting for the privilege of examining a library of 120,000 mostly discontinued supermarket and household goods. Some failed because of their packaging (Maalox Whip, for instance, which dispensed antacid as a dollop from a whipped cream can). Others because of their names (Clairol’s A Touch of Yogurt shampoo stands out, as does Pepsi’s Cucumber Ice Cola). Many simply didn’t work, or the designers failed to look at a larger context.

Such was the case when Planters introduced bricks of vacuum-packed peanuts to the marketplace. It seemed brilliantly logical: vacuum sealing = freshness. Who doesn’t want freshness? But the peanut bricks looked too similar to coffee bricks. Supermarket employees stocked the peanuts in the coffee aisle; consumers assumed they were buying coffee; and then Planters had to field calls from irate customers requesting compensation for ruined coffee grinders.

1. Own it. Failure is a powerful instructor — when we let it.  If our knee jerk reaction to making a mistake is to play the blame-game, to rail that the world is against us, that bad luck follows us like a rain cloud, we need to hit pause, take a breath, and let go of the anger, guilt, fear, or shame. This will make room for us to examine our own actions and behaviors so we can ultimately produce the results we want.

2. Ask and answer objectively. This is as much about finding the good in the mistake as the cause of it. To help you get at the big takeaways, nitty gritty, and human element of what happened, use our checklist list of questions.

To print, download this Failure Analysis Checklist.

To pin, download this Failure Analysis Checklist.

3. List lessons and changes to make. Most likely, as you answer the checklist questions, ideas will spring to mind about how and why to do things differently. Jot them down as you think of them. Then step away from this process for a day or two before you review your answers again to see if more solutions occur to you.

4. Name the opportunity.  It’s possible that your discoveries will lead you to a new or revised goal. It did for the makers of Play-Doh, which was initially sold as wallpaper cleaner. And for Pfizer, when it discovered that the side effects of a not-so-effective blood pressure medicine could be parlayed into the drug Viagra.

5. Get feedback. Share your answers and lesson list with someone you trust and admire. For just about any situation, getting feedback from a valued source brings a fresh perspective and insights that will enhance your approach.

After you’ve been through the process a few times, you’ll probably spot a pattern of behavior that could use some adjusting. For example, if you tend not to ask for help even when you need it, Unstuck’s “Call in the Cavalry” tool can help you plan and network. Or, if your failure analysis reveals indecision, the “Pros vs Pros” tool will help you make choices using your gut instinct. (You can download the free Unstuck iPad app here.) At the same time, failure analysis will identify when you’re at your best. And when you know this, you can make smarter choices about how to succeed in the future. 

Next week: How I learned to always have a Plan B
Last week: How to fail toward success

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