Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


The Bright Side of Failure

Guest post by Matt Herndon

Most of us look at failure as a negative occurrence. Surely if we fail at something, that’s a sign of weakness. But even the most successful people in the world have had their failures. Remember when Michael Jordan decided to play baseball? While it wasn’t his greatest success, he was able to turn it into just another lesson learned during a long and prosperous career. To quote the basketball legend, “I can accept failure; everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

No one likes to fail. When you put extensive time, energy and effort into attaining a goal, missing the mark can certainly smart. You can’t, however, always avoid failure. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you simply can’t reach that mark or accomplish that sought-after goal. It’s important to remember that while failure doesn’t bring with it the accolades and congratulations that accompany success, failure in and of itself isn’t a total loss. If, instead of allowing yourself to wallow in self-pity, you think critically about your failure, you can turn this seemingly negative situation into a valuable learning opportunity.

Goal Re-Evaluation
Particularly if you’ve failed not just once, but numerous times recently, failing once again could be just the prompt you need to re-evaluate the appropriateness of the goals you’ve set for yourself. For example, if you’ve applied for every job under the sun and keep getting the same “thanks but no thanks” response, it may be a sign that your goal isn’t a reasonable one. Perhaps if you still wish to reach your goal, you may need to look into earning a master’s degree or gaining a little more entry-level experience in the field. If you allow yourself to learn from this failure and use it as a cue, you’ll substantially increase your chances of making your next batch of applications more successful than the first.

Opportunity for Analysis
On some occasions, it isn’t that the goal you’ve set is unreasonable, but instead that your method of trying to reach that goal could use some work. Anytime you fail, you’re presented with a valuable opportunity to analyze the situation. To reap the benefits of this chance for careful analysis, consider specifically why you failed and try to determine what you could’ve done to eliminate this failure catalyst. The next time you find yourself working toward a similar goal, keep in mind what you’ve learned and modify your flight plan, improving your chances of enjoying a different outcome.

Character Building
Succeeding is great, but it doesn’t offer the same opportunity for becoming a better person that failure affords. Any time you fail, you’re presented with an opportunity to hone your character. Because failing gracefully requires you to employ self-restraint, class and dignity, not reaching a goal presents the opportunity to exercise these positive character traits, allowing you to become better at exhibiting a level of grace that will ultimately get you much further in life.

Sweeter Success
Just as you don’t appreciate the heat of summer as much without the cold of winter, you won’t really appreciate success as fully if you never feel the burn of failure. To ease the pain associated with failure, remind yourself that when you do ultimately reach your goal-–which you will if you continue to exhibit the dedication and focus that have already served you so well-–it will feel even more sublime than it would have had you reached it on your first attempt.

There’s no way to completely prevent failure. Instead of allowing unsuccessful attempts at reaching goals to leave you burned and jaded, view these misses as opportunities for learning and growth. In doing so, you can retain your positive outlook and hone your skills.

Matt Herndon (@Just_Matt_) lives in Indianapolis with his wife and children. He has been studying and writing about leadership development and organizational communication since he began his undergraduate work in Upper East Tennessee approximately 20 years ago.

The Product Management Perspective: Product managers are known widely as driven individuals. But as with any other job, not every product succeeds and not every release goes as planned. When failures happen (and we all know they will), we need to take Matt’s advice and learn from them. The more willing we are to learn from failures, the more success we will have with the next product or new release.


Guest Post: A Leader’s Perspective on Failure

By Tim Eyre

Our culture has become increasingly obsessed with perfection. You see it everywhere. It’s pervasive in the entertainment industry, as depictions of celebrities contribute to an unattainable idea of what beauty really is. It also permeates the culture of higher education, as applicants vying for spots in prestigious graduate business programs are often made to feel that an A- in Economics 101 might as well have been an F. But in the business world and beyond, employers and employees alike should abandon their traditional notions of success and embrace the idea that an “F” every now and then isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact (dare I say it?), failure can even be a good thing.

Leaders today are well served to appreciate the positive aspects of failure. The following tips can help us adjust our mindsets and accept failure as a part of the process of success, rather than a defeat:

  1. Shifting Focus: As mention above, in many facets of our society, the prevailing point of view equates success with perfection. By those strict standards, Edison could have been derided as a colossal disappointment based on his initial attempts (and, thus, you very well might be reading this article etched on paper by candlelight). As Edison aptly recognized, if we ever want to move forward, we have to take chances. Invariably, by taking chances, the best of us will fall flat our faces sometimes. When we do, we have to stand up straight and move forward, taking note of why the last process didn’t work, why the last strategy was not well received, or why the last device didn’t function properly. The lessons learned through focusing on the process rather than just the end result can help you emerge as a risk taker and leader in innovation.
  1. Get Management Onboard: Particularly in the business world, managers should take the lead in creating a culture where employees are encouraged to explore their creative impulses. If the boss appears to embrace a trailblazing working style, employees will feel comfortable taking risks. But if employers adopt a less enthusiastic approach to innovation, employees will adhere to the status quo, thereby possibly missing opportunities for advancement. An environment where managers furnish employees with freedom to be creative, freedom to take their time and explore all the nuances of the problem, and freedom to think outside the box will undoubtedly translate into fertile ground for progress. Sure, employees who have been freed from the constraints of our perfection-obsessed society may suffer some scrapes and bruises along the way, but if we think of these obstacles as minor setbacks instead of defeats, we can revolutionize the way some companies do business.
  1. Reward Good Failures: Not only should managers permit employees to experiment in finding solutions to problems, they should also reward creative thought. Even if an inventive idea does not lead directly to the answer to the question, awarding provocative thought can create a whole culture of progressive workers.
  1. Punish Bad Failures: While managers should reward employees when they fail in pursuing a new idea in a smart, calculated manner, all failures do not deserve praise. To be sure, all failures are not created equally. Failures that result from a lack of proper planning are unacceptable. Failures that involve an abuse of resources should not be tolerated. And employers should take action when an employee’s failure results from recycling old theories that have already been dis-proven. A real leader must understand the difference between a good failure and a bad failure.
  1. Take Time to Reflect: True leaders don’t just accept failure and move on. Instead, they take time to consider the implications of the failure and why the idea did not work. Never losing sight of the ultimate goal will help you conceive a perspective that views these bumps in the road as a part of the process and as motivation to keep going.

In his role in the self-storage industry, Tim Eyre helps customers care for their cherished belongings that must be put in storage.