Learning to Fail

Last week in my New Venture Strategies class, our professor invited Dan Hanlon (a seasoned entrepreneur and former CEO of Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycles) to speak to the class about his experience with start-up companies and raising venture capital. Dan had a lot of really interesting things to say, a couple of which deeply resonated with me because I have very similar beliefs.

He spoke at length about the qualities and actions required of entrepreneurs. He said that when pursuing a new venture, you have three possible choices: succeed, quit or fail. He’s absolutely right. Unfortunately, most people don’t fully understand the implications of (or opportunities within) this range of actions and outcomes.

So, let’s break it down:

Succeed. One of my favorite questions from my professor this semester has been “What is success?” At first it seemed like an obvious question, but we quickly learned it has many, many dimensions. Success, it turns out, is how you define it … how you frame it. We tend to quantify our own success in terms of how others see it or their expectations for it. The right answer should be: for the amount of effort you put into something, what do you hope you will achieve? You may have other stakeholders to answer to, but ultimately, it’s up to you to right-size and control your definition of success. Only then will you have best positioned yourself to achieve it.

Quit. Okay, this one’s my favorite! Quitting (and its cousin “not trying”) go hand-in-hand with failure. Why? Because most people quit or don’t try something due to their fear of failure. Failure is bad! Horrible! It’s only for losers! I couldn’t disagree more. Failure is an endpoint and provides feedback and closure. Most importantly, it always offers up an opportunity. Quitting or not trying plunges you into the eternal sea of “what ifs …” No thanks. If something isn’t working, bring it to a logical conclusion, but then call it a failure so you can take something positive away from the experience. Then move on without those annoying lingering regrets.

Fail. Failure generally gets a bad rap, but that’s because we give it too much negative weight. Innovation often comes from a familiar place — failing. Out of failure comes knowledge which often leads to success. Leaders and companies that create a productive and safe environment in which their employees can “intelligently fail” get it. But I think that only works when it’s coupled with a strong learning culture. Failure becomes productive when it teams up with learning. Together, they’re a pretty powerful force. Together, they get things done.

All great leaders understand that their role, in the end, is to continually ask really good questions of their people and of their organization. The right questions. That is the value they provide. That’s what propels companies forward. And last night Dan did just that with us. He ended his presentation by asking: “If you weren’t afraid of failing, what would you do?” Exactly.

Evening UST MBA student Larissa Rodriguez, is a full-time marketing and communications executive.