How to embrace failure and begin anew

Aug 21, 2012 | Commerce, Ideas, Ideas for Organisation, TheColumnist

NASA made history this August when it landed Curiosity, the largest ever Mars rover, on the red planet. If just one thing had gone wrong in the ambitious landing sequence, which NASA itself dubbed the Seven Minutes of Terror, the mission would have failed, billions of dollars and years of work going down the drain.

Curiosity, the largest ever Mars rover. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Amid the threat of budget cuts and criticism from lawmakers who want to leave the space race to the private sector, NASA managed to pull off the feat and inspired a new generation to dream big in the pursuit of space exploration.

In Asia, we don’t handle failure and criticism very well. A radio station in Singapore ran an ad campaign that aptly portrayed how we prefer to deal with failure. One scene depicts a boy playing tennis in the worst possible way, while dad watches approvingly. As the coach tells him that his son simply doesn’t have what it takes, dad hears only the good stuff and comes away with the delusion that his son is the next Agassi.

Some Asian countries already deem their economies a success, even though corruption is rampant and their companies remain largely contractors and middlemen in the economic value chain. Our approach to handling failure often involves saying that we tried our best, laying low and hoping that the criticism will go away.

The other strange phenomenon is that as Asia thrives, our appetite for ambition and patience for failure lessen. While some Asian companies have begun to dominate in technology and innovation, many others are satisfied with keeping the status quo. They are making money, so shaping the future and taking control of their own financial destiny is not that important. This is an alarming trend. We should be at a stage where ambition, risk taking and thirst for knowledge are rising. Asia is in a good place, but it could be better.

In a bizarre chapter in China’s history, Ming Emperor Yung-lo, after sending the eunuch Cheng Ho to explore the world, decided to shut down the navy. Cheng Ho had brought back impressive spoils and helped the imperial court learn more about the world beyond China’s borders. Unfortunately court officials saw these presentations as confirmation that the Chinese were far superior and had nothing to learn from this strange new world. They deemed the navy to be too expensive a hobby and went a step further to destroy all evidence and capability of building a blue-water fleet. Future generations of Chinese would lament this decision, because the world would have been a very different place had the navy remained intact.

For Asia to keep rising as a continent of leaders, we need to embrace failure and encourage people to have the determination to make a comeback. Landing Curiosity on Mars would not have been possible without earlier generations who failed and contributed to the understanding of the challenge. The ability and willingness to keep trying against the odds is what pushes the human race forward.

Tenacity against all odds is what pushes the human race forward. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

How can we build a strategy to profit from failures? Here are a few ideas for you to consider:

1. Let the fear of failure inspire you

When embarking on a new venture, don’t get caught up in the possibility of success. Think rather of the different ways an idea can die. As Andy Grove said, “Only the paranoid will survive.”

In our firm we encourage consultants to consider the ways a project can go wrong and to study the different factors before developing a solution. The team learns to be more innovative, if they are forced to think within constraints. To get the most out of such sessions, you must moderate them lest people go to the extreme and become handicapped. You want to challenge people to come up with solutions, not paralyse them.

At our workshops, we ask participants to share one main hope and one main concern about an idea prior to development. People commonly share three types of issues: first, issues that can be solved with the right processes and persons; second, issues beyond the organisation’s control such as the weather or national politics; and third, the outcomes that they desire. People who raise issues that are within the organisation’s control tend to be more action-oriented and willing to work to solve the problem. This encourages a more solution-driven discussion versus a doom-and-gloom approach.

2. Identify what type of failure occurred

Be careful not to jump to conclusions that the venture has failed without a meaningful review. The review should consider the journey thus far, from plan to process, to identify what went wrong. Look out for three types of failures:

Failure of execution occurs because of human or process-related mistakes. A particular action may not have been done well, so the result was unsatisfactory. You can expect to see results after you change the processes or persons involved.

Failure of environment occurs when the business environment is not sufficiently developed to support the venture. The venture may be making money, but securing financing is difficult. You will have to adjust the financing aspect to buy time for the venture.

Failure of concept occurs when no one is willing to pay for the product after it is out in the market. You may be putting in a lot of work and doing all the right things, but it is just not working out. You will have to change the business model and concept.

3. Build a culture that takes failure in stride

Mistakes can be catalysts for great success. Do you know when people make mistakes in your organisation? How do you react to them? You want an organisation where people are open about their mistakes so you can address them before they become problems.

Being forthright about one’s mistakes does not come naturally in the Asian culture, so the management must be supportive when people try to take personal responsibility and to make amends. For subordinates to share their mistakes with their superiors in front of other staff is common at our firm. After such a sharing, we immediately switch from identifying what failed to developing a solution. We don’t dwell on the mistakes or play the blame game. Trust builds between management and staff, and people become less defensive and more open to solving problems. This culture took some years to develop, but it made us stronger and more adaptive to the fast-changing environment.

Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus.

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