What It Takes to Fail

While working with Bill Pascal on a joint article about the link between innovation and failure for this edition of the magazine, I reflected on how easy it is to talk about failure in the abstract and how difficult it can be to actually cope with it. I was reminded of my own failures and my efforts to help my children put failure into perspective.

Failure is, at the very least, embarrassing, often humiliating, and, in the extreme, debilitating.  Bouncing back from failure to try again takes a mix of courage, vision, and tenacity.

Courage
Facing the possibility of failure is a courageous act.  It is often easier to say “no” than to risk failure.   When we do fail, it can be less painful to give up than to try again.

Winston Churchill experienced several very public and what for many other people might be career-ending failures in his life.  Reflecting on these failures, he noted:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Vision
I have long admired inventors such as the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison.  They had a clear vision of what they hoped to achieve and few illusions about the obstacles they faced.  Rather than be daunted by these obstacles, they tackled them in a systematic manner and regarded the inevitable failures as necessary lessons to be learned.

The power of vision to overcome the fear of failure is best summed up comedian Bill Cosby:

“In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.”

Vision has driven and continues to drive many people in the Canadian health IT community.  Early pioneers such as the late (and, on a personal note, sorely missed) Steven Huesing persevered, I believe, because their vision of what was possible compelled them to do so.

Tenacity
Courage and vision are powerful drivers that can help overcome doubt and fear so that we can try again when we fail.  Tackling the difficult tasks that follow requires a tenacity that borders on obsession.

Innovation involves hard work, particularly when accompanied by failures and setbacks.  George Bernard Shaw once remarked:

“When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.”

Supportive Environment
Leaders can play an important role in blunting the impact of failure and encouraging the risk taking that can lead to innovation.  One of my favourite stories, one that I periodically share with my staff, involves the reaction of Thomas J. Watson Sr., to a sales executive’s failure to secure a large government contract.

Mr. Watson was IBM’s CEO from 1914 to 1956.  The government deal in question was strategically important to IBM.   The sales executive personally broke the news to Mr. Watson and described, in detail, the mistakes that led to IBM losing the deal.  When the sales executive finished his explanation, he pushed an envelope across the desk.

Mr. Watson looked at the envelope and asked the sales executive what was inside.  The sales executive told him that it contained his resignation.  Mr. Watson handed him the envelope back and is reputed to have said:

“Why would I accept this when I have just invested one million dollars in your education?”

Final Thoughts
Failure can exact a high personal cost, one that few people may be willing to pay. Indeed, we have a special name for some of these people – entrepreneurs.  When we think about creating a culture of innovation perhaps we need to consider this personal cost and how to help people better cope with it.

I recall trying to put failure into perspective for my children.  I encouraged them to look at failure not as end unto itself but as a means to end.  As Winston Churchill so aptly put it:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

How do you cope with failure? What personal attributes separate the innovators from those who merely talk about innovation?  Do you work in an organization or environment that encourages innovation? Please share your thoughts with me at

michaelm@bsharp.com or on my blog at ehealthmusings.ca

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