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Why You Need More of the Right Kind of Failures

You've probably heard the advice that failing more leads to real success. It's true--but it's not quite that simple.

At the risk of having you click over to another page, let me tell you something that I believe with all my heart: You are not failing enough.

Now, let's be clear what we are discussing here.  When I say "failure" most people hear "Hidenberg" and want nothing to do with the topic. (Quite frankly, I couldn't blame you. I wouldn't want to read about that either.)

But that isn't what I mean at all.  Huge failures--the ones that result from one roll of the dice--can be fatal to your business. As a result of that kind of failure, you use up all--or virtually all--of you resources--and you don't have enough left over to try again.

Obviously, you don't want to do that. And that is not what I am advocating.

No, when I am talking about failures I am talking about tiny ones, small setbacks.

So massive failures are not good. But small setbacks actually are.

Here's why. The best way to approach creating anything new is to take small steps.  Specifically, you want to take a small step toward a goal, pause to see what you have learned from taking that small step, and build that learning into your next step. (Then you take another step, pause, and learn, etc.) It is a model we call: Act. Learn. Build. Repeat.

As you take those small steps, sometimes you will get negative feedback. It will, indeed, be a (small) setback.  But that is actually a good thing for two reasons.

1. You now know what not to do.  ("Nobody likes it in fuchsia. So, we are not going to do it in fuchsia, again.")

2. In those interactions, you invariably get a hint of what your next step should be.  ("People keep asking about whether we could come up with more shades of green. Hmmm.")

In other words, the setback is ultimately beneficial, and since you have only used up a tiny amount of resources taking the misstep, you have plenty left to take advantage of what you have learned.

And that's why small setbacks are good and (big) failures are bad.

Let's underscore one point

Now implicit in this, is that you have to be willing to make small mistakes. And invariably I get pushback every time I say that. People argue everything from if you are making mistakes it means you did not spend enough time planning upfront, to "who has resources to waste on failure?"

I understand the comments. I just don't think they negate the argument.

Yes, of course, you can always spend more time planning.  But if you are planning, you are not in the marketplace and someone can easily implement your great new idea while you are still thinking about it.

As for wasting resources, yes again, you will be out some money if an experiment fails.  But because you are only taking small steps, you won't be out very much.  And the learning will probably far outpace the cost.

The takeaway?

You need to be making more mistakes.


Last updated: Jun 16, 2014

PAUL B. BROWN | Columnist

Best-selling author (and Inc. magazine columnist) Paul B. Brown's latest book, Own Your Future, has just been published. Brown's blog appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

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

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