COPING WITH FAILURE

4 Tips to Fail Profitably

Yes, profitably. Here's how to take back failure--and turn it into something positive and productive.
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"Learn to fall before you learn to fly" --Paul Simon

Failure gets such a bad rap.  For something that everyone does (some more than others) in every industry, business, and country in the world--why do we give it such negative power in our lives?

To some degree it makes sense.  Most of us were raised with a wary eye to the 'F' word (failure, that is) to avoid getting yelled at by parents when that report card came home.  Or letting the team down at the big game.  Or feeling embarrassed in front of a classroom full of peers.

I say that we take failure back and give it a more positive place in our business lives.  Here are some tips:

1. Embrace the #fail.

At Blinds.com, we are always failing in one way or another--and happily so.  If you work here and you're not failing at least some of the time, clearly you're not thinking hard enough.

One of our core company values is to "Experiment Without Fear of Failure."  I hate how fear can overcome even the brightest and most creative of employees, so I simply decided to abolish that fear and replace it with a love of experimentation and continuous improvement instead.

As a leader, I certainly don't do everything right the first time around--how could I reasonably expect my employees to do so?  Try something, learn something, do it better the next time; this paradigm shift has been a profitable one.

2. Fail smaller, fail smarter, fail faster.

I'm hugely risk averse (let's just say Las Vegas isn't at the top of my list for a fun weekend).  To fail profitably and keep my sanity as CEO,  the point is to tackle big projects in such controlled steps that when failure happens the impact is mitigated.  There are no dramatic blow ups or hasty dismantling of projects. Instead, we know exactly what didn't work, when, and why--and we move on from there.

I'm basically recommending you schedule fail stops in your projects' lifespans, which might be really new to you.  Instead of saying "Sounds great, let's see how it goes," my team says "What results should we expect at these different dates and what do we do if we don't like what we see?"

This means catching many failures before they get too pricey.  This means empowering employees to experiment without worrying that things won't go well, because they are watching, tweaking, and sometimes joyfully reporting failure because it taught us what we needed to know to make the project a true success.

3.  Recognize the opportunities from failure.

When I look back at all the things that have gone wrong in our business, I'm struck by the variety of knowledge and understanding we've gained from all of that failure.

  • We've learned about our customers: what their product preferences are, how much they are willing to pay, how they like to be treated.
  • We've learned about technology: what tools we really need, how much it's worth, what we should outsource or build in-house.
  • We've learned about reporting: what metrics really matter, how to collect the best data, how to interpret what we measure.
  • We've learned about our competitors
  • We've learned about our employees: where their core competencies and passions truly are, who can transition a failure into a success, who are the real leaders.

Part of successfully failing is discerning the lessons that present themselves.  Hint: You don't always learn what you expect to learn about.  That's part of the fun, so shed those assumptions and get ready to get better.

4. It's all about attitude.

Sometimes conducting business tests is like being an ophthalmologist.  "Which is clearer, lens No. 1 or lens No. 2?"  And you never see one of those guys go into convulsions about not picking the optimal corrective lens the first time, do you?

Losing reflects a score, but failure reflects an attitude.  Keep that attitude open and accepting and you're going to help grow your company's ability to learn and improve.

As Miles Davis said, "If you're not making mistakes... you're making a mistake."  Fail on, fail profitably, and let me know how it goes!

IMAGE: photo by flickr user amboo who?
Last updated: Jul 19, 2013

JAY STEINFELD | Columnist | CEO, Blinds.com

JAY STEINFELD is the founder and CEO of Blinds.com, the industry leader in online window covering sales that was recently acquired by The Home Depot. Jay is a passionate advocate for amazing (and profitable) company culture.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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