Failure is always an option

“But what if it doesn’t work?” …  “Well, let’s plan to learn from it”

I’ve been working a lot recently with people and teams who are looking to implement changes in their work. In some cases, they’ve been talking about the change for a really long time without actually doing anything. By far the most common reason is fear of failure

This isn’t necessarily an emotional thing. When the stakes are high, or getting things wrong wastes valuable time, ‘fear’ can be very rational. 

So how do I try to help? First, get real – then plan to learn.

Getting real about the possibilty of failure comes more naturally to some people than others. A lot of the leaders I work with are naturally quite optimistic and would prefer not to really face up to the possibility that their brilliant idea won’t work. 

But an honest appraisal of history and our own experience leaves us in no doubt that failure IS an option, even with very promising ideas which generate lots of enthusiasm. Those of us who have experiencd failure in the past are in good company.

Failure is always an option

Failed? You're in good company

Thomas Edison failed 1,000 times to make a lightbulb that worked
Michael Jordan was kicked off his school team
JK Rowling couldn't find a publisher who thought her work would sell

What do Thomas Edison, Michael Jordan and JK Rowling have in common? They’re well-known for being successful, sure.

But they’re also well-known for having failed again and again before they succeeded. The difference between ‘successful failures’ and ‘unsuccessful failures’? Learning!

Thomas Edison failed around 1,000 times in his attempt to make a useable electric lightbulb. Asked about this pretty poor track record, he famously said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 

Michael Jordan is still one of the most celebrated sportspeople worldwide. Yet, early in his life, he was kicked off his school basketball team. In following years, he talked at length about the ‘essential’ place of failure in his career – he used each disappointment to learn about how to be better.

JK Rowling has sold over 600,000,000 books. She’s a huge success by anyone’s standards. Yet it seems she lost count of the number of times she was rejected by publishers before securing her first book deal. She talks now about those failures helping with her subsequent success?

How does that happen? It’s about deciding to learn from the disappointments. Wherever possible, JK Rowling enquired about WHY a publisher had rejected her work. Michael Jordan worked with a coach to talk through WHY he hadn’t done well. Thomas Edison was ruthless in examining WHY another prototype had failed. 

With a realistic plan for the possibility of failure, leading change is no longer something to be afraid of. With a plan to learn, even failure can have positive outcomes.

Plan Do Study Act cycle
The PDSA cycle helps to put learning at the heart of your change effort

So what would I suggest?

Keep having ideas. Try them enthusiastically. And have a plan for how you’ll learn from the majority that disappoint you the first (or 999th) time. 

Working like this is part mindset and part technique. I can’t recommend the technique of Plan-Do-Study-Act highly enough for that. This is a cornerstone of all Improvement Science in my view, and it’s a practical and safe way to ensure even the disappointments propel you forward to a better success in the future. 


Register for personal support

No obligation. We will be in touch as soon as possible to discuss your needs and book at date. 


Register your interest. This is not a commitment. We will be in touch very soon.