This motto neatly represents my approach to being successful at anything I do. Attending a plenary session on “failing forward” at the recent Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) Sustainable Communities Conference, gave me reason to reflect on my thoughts about cultivating this approach in my team and in those around me generally. Its one thing to spit out a cliché like “Fail Early and Fail Often” – but its a whole other thing to actually live it.
I first encountered the term “fail early” in the book “Body for Life” by Bill Phillips. In that context, failing early meant taking body measurements regularly – at least once a week. The purpose for this was to ensure that while you were taking action on your exercise and diet goals, you should constantly be checking to make sure that you were progressing towards your goals, ie weight and body measurements. These regular “check-ins” ensured that if progress wasn’t being made, you had an opportunity to change what you were doing immediately and waste as little effort and time on non-productive activities.
It is said that an airplane is off-course over 90% of the time it is in flight. Throughout the fight, the pilot must make slight course corrections to bring the plane pointed in the right direction. Ultimately the plane gets to where it’s going, but only because the pilot checks-in regularly and makes adjustments – that’s the essence of failing early.
The plane metaphor can represent just about any project or life goal you undertake. Once you have the end (the destination) set in your mind, you create your plan of action (the flight plan) and as you go you measure your progress and you change your plan as needed (course correction). This process is most important when you’re working within a team to accomplish a goal. Regular check-ins not only makes sure that the efforts of each team member are moving you towards your goal, but it also offers reassurance to your people that they are on the right track.
This is code for don’t be afraid to try new things which increase the potential for failure. Innovation demands that you try new things. By its very definition it implies that you attempt something that you’ve never done before, that you push yourself beyond your previous limits and that you do without the skill-to-do. There are a ton of great “failure” quotes out there that emphasis this point. Here are a couple of my favorites:
“You miss 100% of the shots you never take” – Wayne Gretzky
“I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” – Thomas Edison
“Its fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure” – Bill Gates
“An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail” – Edwin Land
“If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost” – Zig Ziglar
In short, if you’re not failing from time-to-time, you’re not stretching yourself enough and you’ll never reach your maximum potential. Failing is essential if you want to grow as a professional and as a person. Think about when you learned to ride a bicycle. At first you fell a few times. You didn’t get it right, but you kept trying. You kept getting back up and trying and learning what not to do. Failure is fundamental to the mastery of any skill and the creation of anything new. You don’t get to success without passing through failure first.
Permission to Fail
To effectively use failure as path to success, you must first be given permission to fail. That permission comes first and for most from yourself and then from the environment that surrounds you, ie your boss, your spouse, your family, your friends, your co-workers, etc.
Creating safe space in which it’s okay to fail is critical for yourself and for your team. As a leader pushing for progress, whether it’s the private, public or non-profit sector – you simply must see failure as an investment and not a cost. This is especially true for local leaders who don’t have the resources to get things perfect the first time. Grinding-it-out requires a supportive environment that allows you to look beyond the immediate struggles. There is a lot of interesting work out there on this topic and I for one will be spending more of my self-development time learning about it.
Do you fail early and fail often? How do you use failure in your personal or professional life?