Disaster or innovation? Your reaction to failure determines which it is

A few sentences in a The New York Times article about failure struck me: “… (an) unexpected truth about innovation: It is, by necessity, inextricably linked with failure. The path to any success is lined with disasters.”

Disaster? That’s a strong word. Just the thought of it turns my stomach, and, probably yours as well. In spite of my initial reaction, however, I have learned that my reaction and mindset to a perceived disaster determines its final outcome. Will this perceived failure scar my viewpoint, or will it lead me down a path to something new and better?

What if one of our greatest failures is holding on too tightly to our past successes? After all, what’s the incentive to risk accumulated rewards? Ironically, past success stops us from taking chances and innovating.

Past failure pain points

The pain of a past failure can also overwhelm us and crush our willpower to try again. How many times have you seen someone give up because they failed at something one time? Maybe you have even said some of the following:

■ “I tried to hire an executive in that position before, and it failed miserably. I will never have that position again! We will do without it.”

■ “Failure is not option.”

■ “My team suggested something that I know won’t work, so I told them that and rejected their stupid idea.”

■ “I want a guarantee that I won’t lose my original investment.”

How to embrace failure

The rate of change is accelerating and businesses are being forced to rapidly innovate or get out of business. But, if both past successes and failures result in fear and risk aversion, how do you embrace failure?

  1. Expect obstacles. The path to change is full of potholes and sometimes sinkholes.
  2. Look for the lesson. Failure not only teaches you what you did wrong; it shows what elements worked. Those then can be incorporated into the next experiment.
  3. Develop “failure stamina,” which allows you to tolerate unfavorable circumstances for an extended period of time.
  4. Manage your internal dialogue to depersonalize the failure and see it as a temporary event.
  5. Manage your emotions so they don’t manage you.
  6. Learn to persevere. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, said, “Experiments are by their very nature prone to failure, but big successes, a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work. … Companies that don’t embrace failure eventually get in the desperate position where the only thing they can do is make a ‘Hail Mary’ bet at the very end of their corporate existence. … I don’t believe in bet-the-company bets. That’s when you are desperate.”

What are you doing to create a flexible organization that encourages risk taking, innovation and, yes, failing?

Cheryl B. McMillan is the chair of Vistage International for Northeast Ohio, a leading international organizations for CEOs, presidents, business owners and senior executives.