The virtue of failure lies in its ability to enlarge our range of experience, shrink our egos, and thereby increase the chance of discovery. If you accept that humans are myopic and often wrong in their views, then failures or mistakes can help them realign with reality. For example, our strategy consulting firm DSI had developed a policy of not responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that came in over the transom. We feared that without some personal connections, the soliciting RFP firm would either be price shopping or had already unofficially selected someone else. But then I decided, as Chairman, to test these assumptions. We waited for the next RFP and rather than ignore it, we developed a full proposal. To our pleasant surprise, this new, unknown client hired us and then requisitioned additional projects.
This experience affirmed to me the wisdom of IBM founder Tom Watson, who emphasized that "if you want to succeed faster, make more mistakes." If much of what we believe is mistaken, we can either wait for other people to point it out or we can figure it out on our own. The latter route is faster but it also means that you have to test things in what appears to be a time-wasting exercise. Advertising genius David Ogilvy did just that when he decided to run ads that he and his client team had rejected, just to see if their collective thinking was right. Most of these rejects indeed tested poorly, but a few turned out to be brilliant, such as a classic Hathaway shirt commercial showing a man with one eye patched. My Harvard Business Review article The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes with Robert Gunther offers step-by-step advice for how to select mistakes worthy of testing. Note that these tests are not your typical rational experiments, where you expect a positive investment return on average. They are a special type of inquiry that your rational side would reject because of a negative expected payoff. These counterintuitive tests pay homage to Albert Einstein, who said that "if you have never made a mistake, you have never tried anything new."
A deliberate approach to making mistakes may seem crazy at first but smart people do it all the time to accelerate their own learning and achieve higher performance. When trumpet wizard Wynton Marsalis was asked how valuable mistakes are in jazz, he replied, "Very important, because if you're not making mistakes, you're not trying." Even though artists are especially adept at toying with crazy stuff, including deliberate mistakes, the same is true in business and science. My book Brilliant Mistakes Finding Success on the Far Side of Failure develops this counter-intuitive thesis in much greater detail. Shortly after this book appeared, my publisher organized a contest that asked readers to send in their most brilliant mistakes. The winning submissions ranged from an experienced doctor stumbling on a medical insight to a young female performer at children parties finding new ways to mix in balloons, as further detailed in a Wall Street Journal article highlighting the learning potential of mistakes.
My intent in this post is to help you reorient your attitude toward setbacks and failures. A.G. Lafley, former CEO of P&G, emphasized that we should view mistakes as gifts because they tell us something we did not know. The same applies to unexpected successes but they are much easier to celebrate, examine and discuss with others. The bigger opportunities for learning lie on the far side of failure, where we may not want to tread as teams or even alone. So here is what I recommend in short:
1. Embrace the full learning potential of failure by overcoming the shame and fear that usually turns us away from discovering failure's hidden messages. Rather than forgetting about them, we need to dissect unexpected outcomes with clinical detachment.
2. To learn from a failure, it's critical to separate your decision-making process - which is the part that you own - from the decision's outcomes, which may have been influenced by random factors you can't reasonably be expected to control, such as pure chance.
3. There is a big difference between silly or stupid errors and truly brilliant failures that contain hidden seeds of success. It all hinges on the relative costs and benefits of what is at stake. For an inadvertent mistake to become brilliant your search for the silver linings - in the form of new insights or opportunity - must in the end far exceed the cost of the failure.
4. The highest form of learning is not just to wait passively for random failures to occur, but to create more room for mistakes and commit them on purpose. Just as random mutations have advanced evolution, clever, well-designed mistakes can open new portals of discovery.
I sometimes ask executives about what taught them the most in their careers, expecting answers like specialized training, seasoned mentors, new challenges, or colleagues. But the most successful ones often said "my mistakes," which requires intellectual honesty as well as curiosity. The school of hard knocks can indeed be a great teacher but it is also sends in horrific bills. You may as well wring each last drop of learning from every hard won lesson.