Much of society has been taught to believe that failure is negative and results in the loss of much effort and resources. This is only true if we allow this thinking to become reality.
Quite often, disappointing results or failed projects can be the greatest opportunities for further improvement or even breakthrough. I’ve had the benefit of being part of some innovative endeavors that have led to process improvement and product features. As I look back at how many of these improvements and features were developed, many of them got their start from crushing disappointments.
As a quality professional, I’ve had the privilege to work alongside a few brilliant innovators. I’ve learned that people who take risks fully understand that there is value in making mistakes. These are the individuals who most often accomplish dramatic quality improvements. They leverage their insightful knowledge from past mistakes and their willingness to adapt and try new things—that may or may not work—to put themselves in a position to deliver results.
Thomas Edison, one of history’s greatest inventors with claim to 1,093 patents, failed numerous times on his journey to create a successful incandescent lamp or light bulb. Edison reportedly said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Certainly, negative results are never fun, but they shouldn’t become demoralizing. What innovative people realize is that negative results are signaling that something different and new needs to be done. As Edison et al knew this can be a blessing; if you can overcome the frustration associated with initial failure and take on the challenge of inventing a new process or new product feature, you are now on the path to a breakthrough. You may or may not be successful in inventing a solution, but you now have another chance at success.
It is easier to understand the concept of productive mistakes when the situation is reversed. Take a situation where you start a project, develop a plan, execute the plan, things go fairly well and the project is successful. In this situation, your assumptions were correct, you most likely took the standard approach to getting the tasks done and did a good job managing the project.
While completing a successful project is something to feel good about, there may have been a missed opportunity to get breakthrough improvements from the project. Was it your objective to simply get the job done, or was it your goal to take some risks that could take the business to a new level of performance?
In a productive failure, you don’t achieve your objective, but you come away with new knowledge and understanding that will increase your chances of success on the next try. You can build on productive failures.
The more actions you take, the more productive failures you’ll experience. Years ago, while leading a significant continuous improvement program we adopted the slogan, “Become more successful by increasing your failure rate.”
Success makes us feel good, but mistakes teach us valuable lessons. Individuals good at making quality improvements are the people who are willing to try nonstandard approaches to problems. A project that has a good result is a one-time event, but the valuable lessons learned from a failure can provide insights that last a lifetime. This struggle, if handled positively, will often be a blessing in the long term.
Take for instance, the story of the invention of sticky notes. Dr. Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, failed to invent a super-strong adhesive that he was seeking but instead he came up with a super-weak one. A failure looking for an application that wasn’t apparent until six years later!
Years ago, an inventor friend taught me to adopt a new line of thinking about failure. When bad things happen, first think, “Darn, that is really disappointing.” Then think, “How can I turn this into something useful?”
Think about this for a moment to consider how you can adjust your mindset. Most likely you won’t become another Thomas Edison, but there’s no doubt you can find ways to make your life more productive.