A Eulogy of Failure

13/11/2019 Failure, a fatality or an opportunity for change projects?

Failure, humiliation and defeat are neither pleasant nor the intended result when companies decide to start a new project. However, when looking at the facts, studies tend to show that an estimated 70% of corporate projects fail(1). Failure is consequently more likely than success. Yet, this has not resulted in a decrease in the number of projects. On the contrary, we are animated by this strange conviction that the next project will be a success. This should paradoxically bring a message of hope to all managers who have experienced a resounding failure, because – yes – it is sometimes (often?) when one has reached rock bottom that the most beautiful successes are built.

"Enjoy failing, and learn from failures, because we learn nothing from successes"

There are countless examples of managers and entrepreneurs who have succeeded after having initially failed miserably. Among the most famous ones are Henry Ford, who went through five liquidations before the dazzling rise of his company. Or Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, who founded Sony by launching defective and unsellable pressure cookers. And what about Bill Gates who abandoned his studies at Harvard to look after his first business, which ended bankrupt… Even the famous inventor of the vacuum cleaner that carries his name, James Dyson, is accustomed to the subject and used to say: “enjoy failing, and learn from failures, because we learn nothing from successes”.

While the fear of failure has never been stronger, how can we explain this strange paradox that intimately links success to failure, and crisis to future performance? It seems that the answer lies first and foremost in our neurological system: we learn primarily, as Edward Thorndike argued, by a trial-and-error process. Without error, no improvements can be made. Change management and storytelling specialists (John Paul Kotter among others), stress the importance of the ‘burning platform’, in other words ‘the major crisis’, to trigger a successful change. Without the necessity to change, change will not happen. And without crisis, there is no necessity to change. As for the innovation specialists, they are unanimous: the products that work best are often the ones initially rejected by their users. Take Everett Rogers’ concept of “reinvention”, which means making a failure a success by transforming it; for instance, by using it for an initially unintended use. It is clearly at this intersection that lies the foundation of the value creation process.

Nonetheless, in the realm of failure, there is no room for idealism. Clearly, some companies, groups or individuals never recover from it, especially once failure exceeds individuals and taints the organisation and the brand. When it comes to a major crisis or disaster, to paraphrase Karl E. Weick, if a project completely loses meaning, recovery and new-found performance can be a very long and painful process, and in some cases may never occur again.

But for the agile managers, the leaders of companies in permanent change mode, and the teams sufficiently mature to analyse the “root causes”; failure is actually a strength. Those who have made Churchill’s famous statement theirs, which is that “success means being able to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm”, see failure and defeat as formidable sources of opportunity. They use them to build a better future and see in them the guarantee of improved performance over the long run.

This paper is part of the #InnovatorsAtMazars series. If you would like to learn more about this campaign, please visit our website.