I am successful, not at everything but at some things. I am a failure, not at everything but at some things. Both are true at the same time.

We need to stop viewing the relationship between failure and success as some sort of continuum, this illusion that they are somehow opposites. They are not. Failures are our building blocks to innovation and success, both personally and professionally.


The Corporate Perception of Failure and Success

In this corporate capitalist world, we generally view failure as somewhere we don’t particularly want to be and success as the goal. It is the image above. Make the leap, commit, strive for success. Failure is not an option. Don’t look back. We want to grow our business, grow our brand, launch new successful products. Keep moving forward.

Much of my work on the coaching/personal development side of my business focuses on helping people make this leap, their transformation journey, and as such, yes, it is important to focus on the goal, the future, the success. But thinking that your success is somehow independent of your failures is inherently flawed. Failure and success are symbiotic and it is the same for any brand or business. The problem is we do not seem to celebrate or openly discuss failure.


The Power of Failure

Next year in Paris, a new group of Olympians will stand on their respective podiums receiving their 2024 medals. As the ribbons slip over their heads, the tears of joy shed will not just be celebratory, but often a glimpse into their previous failures, their resilience, years of sacrifice and pain. No one stands on that podium without a deep and marked relationship with failure.

Even the swimmer Michael Phelps, who was later to become the most decorated gold medal Olympian of our times, walked away with absolutely nothing from his first Olympics in Sydney in 2000. As the youngest swimmer ever to make the American team in 70 years, he was tipped for great things, and while his 23 gold medals are testament to that now, in 2000 he failed to deliver anything.

Staying with athletes, Tom Brady, the infamous NFL quarterback, was not a first pick, far from it. In fact, he was the 199th pick and only drafted in the 6th round. Michael Jordan, regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, was famously cut from his high-school team.

Failure marks the beginning of many great journeys. We all know the story of how JK Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 publishing houses before Bloomsbury recognised its potential. Opray Winfrey’s first job as a news anchor on WTVF-TV ended abruptly after one short contract. Someone who would go on to become one of the most successful TV personalities of our times was let go, bringing her dream TV career to a halt.


Failures Pave the Way

The psychology literature is full of case studies regarding those that failed before they succeeded. Failure is often a pre-cursor to success, a catalyst. Bill Gates first technology company Traf-O-Data, a 1970s data analysis company focusing on traffic data, went nowhere. But it was here that he and Paul Allen learnt skills that would later morph into what was to become Microsoft. Remember Steve Jobs was kicked out if his own company while Tesla struggled to make any impact in the automotive industry in its early years. Starbucks was a small failing Seattle coffee chain in the 70s before Howard Schultz stepped in and changed everything. Modern brands fail too, even enormous global ones.

google glass failure ken hughes

Modern Brand Failures: Learning from the Giants

Google Glass was heralded as a new era of interactivity but the consumer-facing project was shelved in 2015, deemed a failure (for now). Google+, their social networking platform designed to compete with Facebook launched in 2011 was finally shut down in 2018. Amazon’s Fire Phone, launched in 2014, was a commercial failure, as was Microsoft’s Zune (their iPod imitation). Failure is everywhere.

Some brands even have their past failures in their names. The infamous household lubricant and rust remover product WD-40 is so called because the Water Displacement spray was the 40th formula developed by the company, after 39 previous unsuccessful attempts. It was Einstein that said “Success is failure in progress.”


Investing in Failure

Few businesses and brands achieve their successes without investing in failure. Milton Hershey had previously started three different candy-related ventures, all failures, before founding the Lancaster Caramel Company, pursuing his vision of milk chocolate for the masses (it later became the Hershey company).

So, if we accept that failure is part of the innovation process, why is it so stigmatised in modern society? If we all recognize that failure is essential, why do we only celebrate success? Why is failure perceived as something shameful, something you are somehow guilty of? There is something pointedly hypocritical of a business that wants to build a culture of innovation but doesn’t celebrate failure. Failure is still seen as something dirty, something disappointing, something of little value.

Resilience Eats Failure for Breakfast

What many of the examples above share is persistence and resilience, the idea that if you keep going you will eventually get there. I have great admiration for those that succeed, often despite the odds. Resilience is both a deeply attractive quality (in leaders, personal relationships, and entrepreneurs) but also a key attribute for survival in our modern business environment.

We all love a good resilience story. Often, we use global brands or personalities to demonstrate resilience and persistence. But I sometimes find everyday heroes far more accessible and inspirational. The 90 second video below is one of my favourites.

What you are watching is the Irish inter-university women’s 400m relay from 2016. While the commentary is deliciously amateur (but at the same time somewhat delightful), the result is one of the best examples of persistence and resilience, despite the odds. University College Cork (UCC), my own alma mater, take the title having started from 5th place. While clearly talent and training play a huge role, few athletes would be capable of taking gold having started so far behind. Success lies in persistently believing in the self and the potential outcome, regardless of the situation as it presents itself.

However, that is only half the story. Failing repeatedly gets you nowhere unless you learn from the mistakes made. Those that learn from why something has failed, and carry that knowledge forward to the next iteration, build toward success.

In the research studies relating to failure, one finding shines through again and again. Not only do we need to learn from previous failures, it is those that ‘fail fast’ tend to succeed. The best indicator for future success seems to be shortening the time between your consecutive failures. The faster you fail, learn, and try again, the more likelihood of success.

Returning to college athletics (this time in the US), this is also a very famous clip (start 50 seconds in if you don’t want the tension of the entire 2-minute clip). Here we see a great example of failure, resilience, and speed of recovery. This race was won, not only from the athlete’s resilience and persistence, but mainly in the speed of her recovery from ‘failure’.

So, at this stage we can be confident that success involves an attitude of resilience, persistence, and speed around your recovery from failure. But where does the aversion to failure itself come from in our corporate culture? If we know this (and we do), and we truly want to build businesses with innovation at their core, why do we turn away from failure? For me, the answer lies in our attitude to risk.

When my daughter was a little girl (above, not the beautiful young woman she is today), I noticed a fascinating personality quirk. Before any game, she would quickly assess her likelihood of success. If she felt she might not win, or perhaps fail in trying, she would decide not to take part. She always calculated her ‘risk v reward’ in relation to her perceived talents and acted accordingly. Thankfully she grew out of that phase, as if we only buy a ‘ticket to play’ when we are certain of the outcome, well, we would never discover any new talents or potential.

I think a lot of corporate businesses are stuck in my daughters 8-year-old phase. Their attitude to risk is unhealthy when it comes to fuelling their innovation engine, and perhaps you are doing it with the team you lead too?

The Risk Calculation

Risk is generally presented as either calculated or unmitigated. A calculated risk is as it sounds. We make informed decisions based on available data, scenario planning outcomes, laying down contingency plans and doing our best to manage any uncertainties. It is still risk (in that there is uncertainty) but it is managed risk.

Unmitigated risk, on the other hand, is somewhat unmanaged, more unpredictable, raw, scary. Into the unknown we go. To understand the difference, think of a continuum line between calculated and unmitigated risk.

When you throw yourself over the boat scuba diving, you are taking part in calculated risk. You’ve completed your training for emergency procedures, you’ve checked your gear, you’ve looked at the weather forecast and depth. Yes, it is still a slightly risky sport (about 80 divers lose their lives every year in the US/Canada alone) but in general, the risk is managed, the outcomes predictable (even in an emergency).

Now let’s come up along that continuum a little, to the middle. Watch the video above (possibly through your fingers) as Luke Aikins plummets to the ground at 150mph without a parachute. There are calculations at play here also – weather, wind speed & direction, training, scenario planning, but the outcome is more binary. He either scores a 1 or it’s a serious 0. This takes things more toward the middle of that continuum.

Finally, the video above is James Kingston, a famous parkour athlete and YouTuber. Yes, he is still alive and part of me is impressed at his skill and, let’s face it, balls (with an equal mix of stupidity perhaps?). But this nudges things up more toward complete unmitigated risk. A&E departments all over the world are full of (mostly men, let’s face it) who thought ‘this should work’ (admission- I was one).

Strive for Risk+

So, what kind of risk should you be encouraging in your business? To be honest I think somewhere in the middle, not just calculated risks but RISK+. Let’s not go all out and just see what happens, but we do need to step away from the carefully planned and orchestrated innovation cycles we are in. If we are too careful, then there can never be any breakthroughs, amazing moments, or new discoveries. As Luke demonstrated above, some days you should just leave the parachute at home.

So here are 4 ways you can ensure that failure becomes a better catalyst for innovation in your business and in your team:

1. Address the Stigma of Failure 

Ensure that everyone knows that failure is not viewed negatively in the organisation and that it is an inherent part of your creative philosophy. You must push past lip-service here though. Be genuine, real, and authentic about it. Failure is healthy.

2. Encourage Risk Taking

Provide your team with the resources and inspiration to experiment, to take calculated risks (or risk+). Communicate their freedom to make mistakes.

FAILURE3. Celebrate Failure

Awards are always handed out to those that have succeeded. But perhaps the brave ones are the ones that tried new things, new directions, pushed boundaries. Celebrate failure publicly if you are to make others believe it is safe to fail.

4. Reward & Invest in Experimentation

Provide incentives for experiments, either in the way of time, project structures, or resources. Experimentation is how we discover – no experiments, no discovery.

And while this is all true of business and innovation, it is also true for ourselves. Failure is an amazing mentor if you develop a healthy relationship with its force. Just don’t go free-climbing any cranes because you read this article.

This article is an exert from Ken Hughes’ infamous keynote “Fuelling Your Innovation Engine”, inspiring executives and high-performance individuals to unlock their potential and lean into risk, resilience and uncertainty.

Ken Hughes, once described as ‘Europe’s answer to Tony Robbins’, is one of the world’s most inspirational, entertaining and insightful speakers on transformation, perspective and success.

Ken Hughes, known as The King of Customer Experience on the International Conference Circuit, studies emerging consumer behaviour and helps businesses and brands establish deeper and more relevant connections with their customers.

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