Most companies spend an enormous amount of time and effort in seeking out best practices from their business or from companies they admire. Whenever I am asked to speak on a topic to a senior executive audience, they want to know about best practices they can learn from. While best practices are valuable, the single-minded focus on best practices misses an important insight – success is a lousy teacher compared with failure. We learn a lot from failure, because failure makes us more receptive to new ideas and failure is easier to diagnose than success. So, I suggest that companies should document, celebrate and reward failure by focusing on Famous Mistakes.
I define Famous Mistakes as high-profile failed initiatives in a company that taught the company valuable lessons about what doesn’t work. Note that the metric for evaluating the value of mistakes is the learning that came out of it. Consider a new product launch. Let’s say the product failed miserably in the marketplace because it was sold through the wrong channels or because it was rushed to the market without enough customer input during the development process. Such failed product launches can teach the company the importance of a well-thought out channel strategy or the power of a compelling value proposition. But we tend to bury our losers and we tend not to document failures or talk about them. How many case studies and books have you read on mistakes, failures and bloopers? When we bury our mistakes, we also bury the learning that came out of the mistakes. And in so doing, we condemn ourselves to repeating the mistakes!
So let’s understand failure and let’s tell stories about mistakes we made and what we learned from them. After all, I believe that failure is not about making mistakes. Failure is about not learning from your mistakes.