Failure - RSA

Last Word: Failure


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    Deborah Meaden
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There is a lot to treasure in a flop

Failure is bad, success is good. It is hardly surprising that many believe this mantra to be true given that the language around failure – defeat, loss, collapse – is devoid of any hint of constructive positivity. And yet, failure is an important building block of success; one simply cannot exist without the other.

Failure is embedded deeply within the DNA of every business, which is built from millions of successes and failures, from huge to tiny, happening all the time. Indeed, learning how to recognise and manage failure to ensure it forms part of the greater success of a business has become increasingly important, particularly in a world where our needs are evolving at an ever-accelerating pace, forcing us to try new and challenging propositions to keep our audience satisfied.

Being in business is like overseeing a constant experiment. We may think we have the ‘knowns’ and the ‘tried and tested’, but these factors are continually evolving and we must make constant tweaks and changes in response, adding a new ingredient here, a new approach there, with shifts great and small. Each one of these shifts carries risk of both success and failure.

Of course, all fails are not equal. It is wise to avoid catastrophic failure, but unwise to avoid failure of any kind, which inevitably leads to fearful inertia. Good judgement and being tuned in to your internal and external market should allow a business to encourage risk-taking and to embrace both the rewards and the losses that follow.

Neither are all fails bad. Preventable fails are frustrating, but some failures are very smart indeed and, when handled correctly, can be seen as a bridge to the future ‘next big thing’. Some failures emerge out of fundamentally sound moves, caused by complex organisation structures getting in the way. Here, too, given the right environment and thoughtful review, these types of failures may well spark a very sound step forward for an organisation.

But changing our response to failure is a big task. Nobody likes to get things wrong, and it can be difficult to convince anyone that good things pretty much always come out of sometimes epic fails! Change can begin simply by refocusing the actions around an identified ‘fail’: by probing the ‘why’; by making sure the moment is viewed as a real opportunity to learn and adapt; by deep and open reviews; by learning how to deal with the emotions surrounding a fail; and by building a resilience which enables you to consider, learn, apply that learning and move forward.

Failure is powerful. It often evokes a higher sense of emotion than even the greatest successes, and that emotion can be harnessed for good or bad. We should embrace the power of failure and understand that, without a culture that appreciates and even nurtures failure, no business will ever reach its full potential and may even be forming the path to its own demise.

I would like to reframe failure as I see it: a critical aspect of building success, without which we would all stagnate both personally and professionally, leaving life’s biggest opportunities undiscovered.

Deborah Meaden is a Dragons’ Den investor, successful entrepreneur and co-host of The Big Green Money Show. She is actively involved in numerous charities supporting environmental, wildlife and microfinance initiatives

Follow Deborah Meaden on Twitter here: @Deborahmeaden

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2022.

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