How to make a success out of failure

How to make a success out of failure

Fear of failure can hinder a business more than failure itself. Leaders should be risk takers if they want their companies to thrive, writes guest blogger Sally Uren, chief executive of Forum for the Future

I need a number of Forum for the Future’s projects to fail. Many business leaders might think it an odd concept for a CEO to promote, but failure is critical.

Why? Because transformational change goes hand in hand with innovation, and to push forward transformational change and deliver the solutions to the complex and urgent sustainability challenges we face, we need bold experimentation.

But experiments are what they say on the tin – experimental. Some will work, some won’t.

Intellectually then, the case for failure is strong, but emotionally it’s far harder to admit. And this fear of failure can hold us back in our working lives.

It’s vital that all businesses close this gap, encouraging risk-taking, as ultimately that’s what will drive change and produce profit – just look at Apple.

Whether experimenting by introducing new products, services or even a sustainability agenda, it’s important to prepare to ‘fail well’ and embrace failure along the way. Because, if done well, failure will just add richness to an organisation’s success story.

So, if you’re looking to increase your capacity for innovation, here are a few tips to ‘fail well’. Do it right, and it could be one of your best business moves yet.  

Never waste a good crisis

Use failure as an excuse to experiment and be bold with your ambition, like the story behind sustainability communications agency Clownfish.

Its founder, Diana Verde Nieto, created the company after she was made redundant and, seeing a gap in the sustainability communications industry, decided to become her own boss. Those who dare, win. 

View ‘failure’ as practice

Be persistent in your experimentation, if you achieve your goals on the first try you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough.

A few years ago, Pepsico introduced a 100% biodegradable crisp packet which inspired a consumer backlash. The packets, while planet-friendly, were just too noisy and, against expectations, sales plummeted.

Pepsico persisted, and introduced a better, quieter, product into a different market to a positive response, even making fun of them by offering ear plugs to worried consumers.

Try failure in a ‘safe’ place

While failure isn’t something to be afraid of, be smart with your risk taking and make sure you have the ‘air cover’ of senior colleagues.

When B&Q had to withdraw wind turbines from sale, amid evidence they didn’t work as efficiently as previously thought, its sustainability-minded chief executive, Ian Cheshire, refused to halt experimentation. Sales of its eco-products continue to grow. 

Adaption is king

Failure is a symptom of a design problem that is yet to be approached in the right way.

Don’t knock your head against the same wall over and over again, go around it. 

Dominate your inner fear

You won’t get anywhere if you are afraid to fail. Take your lead from CEOs such as Paul Polman of Unilever and Ronan Dunne of O2 – both leaders of pioneering companies who have admitted they didn’t know how they would deliver their sustainability ambitions when they first published them.

Thus, the risk of failure is high but with some bold experimentation and persistence along the way the rewards could be great!

About author

Sally Uren

Sally Uren

Sally Uren is CEO of Forum for the Future, an independent non-profit working globally with businesses to solve complex sustainability challenges.

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