Is Failure Really a Good Teacher?

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On November 6, 2016

is-failure-really-a-good-teacher2We’ve all heard the motivational quotes about failure. Winston Churchill admonished that, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” John Wooden picked up on that thought and elaborated, “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be.” Robert Kennedy weighed in on the topic with, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

Those are all motivating thoughts, but I’m left wondering if failure is really such a great teacher. A recent article on LinkedIn brought that to a head. Initially I was a bit put off by the title: The Importance of Sucking at a Job for a Year or Two. You can read the article for yourself here, but I want to focus on two things that struck me.

First of all, there’s a difference between failure and making mistakes. Granted, repeatedly making mistakes can lead to failure. But mistakes can be corrected if you’re willing to acknowledge them and correct them. Henry Ford had that figured out when he said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” We all make mistakes in life and in business. Not all of us learn from them, and not all of us experience utter failure either.

The second thing that struck me as I read that article was that most of us don’t have the luxury of being really bad at what we do for a year or two. If we (or someone within our business) are really bad at something and repeatedly make the same mistakes, the business will probably fold. That’s failure—and it probably is fatal for your business.

So if your business really can’t afford to “get it wrong” for a year or more, what can you do about it? First of all, you have to know if you’re bad at something. That means taking a hard (and honest) look at things you do on a regular basis. It’s not enough to think you’re doing OK or to feel like things are all right. You need to know. You need data.

What are the things you’re measure in your company that will give you real data about how your business is doing? That’s what Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are all about. They may not give you the entire picture—but a KPI gives you hard data that you can measure. Knowing that gross sales are up (instead of hoping that they are) is important. It’s equally important to know if profitability is up or down. If sales are up but profits are down—you’ve got a problem to fix.

Do you know what you’re good at (and what you’re not good at)? Are you measuring the things that will ultimately determine your success or your failure? It you don’t know where the mistakes are being made, you won’t be able to fix them or avoid making them in the first place.

Mistakes don’t have to lead to failure. But you have to identify them and correct them. But that requires having a good handle on what you’re doing right and what needs to be improved.

What are you measuring?