As business leaders, we’re conditioned to celebrate our successes. We make announcements to the public and media when we celebrate revenue milestones or launch a new product or feature. We apply for awards and send out news releases heralding our greatness when we win. We share the “secret recipe” for our success in hope that we and others can recreate the magic.
But collectively, we don’t spend much time talking about our missteps — and much less digging into what went wrong, what we could have done better and what we learned from the entire experience. In business, failure is often swept under the rug to be forgotten.
Recently, I spoke at Fail Fest, a day-long festival that celebrates the role failure plays in innovation. Presented by Launch Fishers — a co-working space for high-growth, high-potential enterprises backed by the City of Fishers — Fail Fest draws business leaders from around the state of Indiana. Throughout the event, over 20 leaders took the stage and cast a spotlight on their lowest moments, their biggest lessons and what failure means to them.
Fail Fest was inspiring because, as speaker after speaker took the stage, there seemed to be a universal theme to what could be interpreted as frustrating experiences. In business, failure is inevitable. It’s what you do after you fail that makes a difference.
Formstack is no exception. When I came to Formstack in 2010, I had some failures under my belt, but they weren’t really processed as principals that I could learn from. I met with a business coach who encouraged our leadership team to come up with a culture code. As with country culture, a corporate culture code doesn’t dictate what’s right or wrong, but it does help provide feedback for how to behave despite challenging circumstances — like failure.
To help you turn your own failure into success, I’ve outlined three principals of the culture code we’ve introduced at Formstack. These principals represent three themes that emerged again and again during Fail Fest, and I’ve paired them with a few thoughts on how you can apply similar principals in your own endeavors.
1. Create a culture of transparency.
When things don’t go as planned, it’s human nature to want to close ranks. We don’t want to rehash our flops — we want to pull the drapes, lick our wounds and forget about it.
But in business, this approach isn’t only self-indulgent. It can have a negative impact on your bottom line.
When it comes to overcoming failure, transparency is the name of the game. Why? Because transparency cultivates trust — especially when things aren’t going as planned. It’s easy to talk about gains, but it’s more challenging to come to the table with honest talk about losses. The good news is that by keeping all vested parties looped in from the beginning, you build a culture of transparency that instills trust, and you can sustain this trust even after a failure.
Remember: Your employees, investors, partners and other stakeholders are part of your team. They all need reassurance after a failure. They need to know it’s okay to try and fail, as long as they learn from the experience. As your company’s leader, it’s your job to provide it. If appropriate, accept responsibility. But it’s more important to acknowledge the situation and offer a plan for recovery or other next steps.
2. See a problem, solve a problem.
Don’t wait for others to fix the problems in your business. After a failure, it’s tempting to “pass the buck” or delay acting on known problems until forced by regulation, public opinion or some other outside force. But this is a recipe for repeat failure.
Instead, evaluate what went wrong and learn from your past mistakes. Don’t rely on memory or company history to capture what you learned, either. Create a case study that details the experience, and follow it up with an actionable plan to prevent a repeat performance.
3. Be agile and innovative.
Failure is okay, especially if you learn from it. In order come up with new and innovative ideas, new concepts have to be tried. New ideas don’t need to be committed to for life, but trying something new and seeing if you can get traction is essential to growth.
Take Formstack, for example. We recently began working to build out a new section of our business. Although the new effort was a success, we realized we weren’t adequately supporting our traditional business. From this misstep, we made the choice to split into two business units: one that supports our new strategy and one that nurtures our strong revenue stream.
Being agile and innovative is especially important after a failure. Getting back on the horse isn’t the only path to recovery. It’s okay to try something new, too.
A final thought? Success covers a thousand sins. In failing, we get the chance to look under the rug and ask ourselves, “Is there something else we need to understand?”
By Chris Byers