Failure Is a Winning Strategy

Most days I write about management issues such as the intersection of work and technology, remote collaboration, and management by objective, not attendance. Today I want to talk about how we fail -- because it's important to understand how we fail in order to give ourselves the best shot at real success.

Let's start with a baseline that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. The 19th century Baptist pastor and writer, H.L Wayland, once said that the only people who don't make mistakes are the dead. He famously quipped that he "...saw a man last week who has not made a mistake for 4,000 years. He was a mummy in the Egyptian department of the British Museum."

The good news about mistakes is that they are our best teachers. We can, and must if we want to get better, learn from those mistakes. And not all mistakes are catastrophic. We often make small errors in judgment and correct ourselves along the way. But we also make doozies. What we do after we realize it's a misfire that drives real success or failure.

When we go into defensive mode and start to make excuses and blame others, we board the express train to failure. There is nothing to be learned from placing blame other than how to ensure the mistake will happen again. Sweeping failure under the rug is not a recipe for success nor does it do you or your organization any good. When swept under the rug, failure will only come back to haunt you. In the sober light of day we must admit our mistakes and show our colleagues and the world that we want to do better.

A very smart friend once told me that all morality lessons (pick your text of choice: the Bible, Koran, Torah, or in my case, Winnie-the-Pooh) have a central lesson: treat others as you want to be treated yourself. I believe all management lessons have a central theme as well: learn from your mistakes and those of others. You need to see failure to understand and appreciate success. In business, success is a relative term. Some define it as being the best in the field or industry, others as making "X" amount of money, and politicians define it as getting reelected. I define it as meeting your stated objective. I hope it involves creativity and innovation, but it can be whatever you (and your boss) define.

Failure teaches what not to do, but it also tells us that we are pushing the limits. And pushing the limits is critical to creativity and innovation. Said another way, without risk, there is no reward. It's not just good enough to fail, you need to fail trying hard to succeed. Of course, if you just phone it in (hint: telework joke), then your failure only drives your laziness. But when you stretch and try something new, different, risky, you might succeed and you might fail, but in either case, you have done something that moves you forward. Organizations are changing. In the past, "failure is not an option" was a good motto. Today, we see more and more smart, innovative, and successful (under anyone's definition) organizations embracing failure as a healthy milestone on the path to success.

Government, unfortunately, is a little behind on this approach and it's never worse than in an election year. Politicians love to take agencies to task for whatever misstep they find (real or imagined), because they know that the folks back home want to see them rooting out evil to give them a ticket back to D.C. for another term. This is not healthy and it's not even effective changing behavior for the positive. All it really does is make government employees less likely to take a risk and do something new and possibly brilliant. If you want brilliance, innovation, and creativity, you need to let people try new things and sometimes fail. We should only get mad if they don't learn from the mistakes, but to punish them for taking a chance is the real losing strategy.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments on these ideas. You can email me at or check out my blog at I also hope many of you will be able to join us next month in Washington D.C. for the Telework Exchange Town Hall Meeting on September 25th at the D.C. Convention Center, where government and industry speakers will share success stories and lessons learned from some not so successful stories. The event takes place during my birthday week, so I have told the powers that be that there needs to be some cake.