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The Churchill Club's 2018 Guide to Failing Upwards

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career.
I’ve lost almost 300 games.
26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed.
I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.
And that is why I succeed”’

- Michael Jordan

It is said that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes.

We’d like to add a third to that list – failures - and it’s inevitable that come the end of another year, we all reflect on them.

So we put failures under the microscope to ask how we learn the lessons they have to offer, in order to find our feet and strive again. What we heard were some tips on how to deal with failure, how to grow from it, and the common culprits behind it.

Consider this your 2018 cheat sheet to failing upwards.

Let’s start with the main culprits…

Assumptions

“Assumptions are the mother of all evil”, may be the mantra of 2018.

If you take only one piece of advice from this, it’s that most failures can be traced to an idea or assertion that hasn’t been tested or confirmed.

An assumption could be that your business partners share the same vision as you, that your target market will just ‘get’ your idea, or that suppliers will distribute your product. They are not always hiding grossly in plain sight, and in fact most are the result of miscommunication. Unpacking even the most commonly held truths, may help you to avoid future failure.

Skipping due diligence

Passion, gut feelings and hard work are important - they drive your ideas to fruition and allow you to sacrifice for your end goal.  One thing they don’t do is guarantee success, yet in the midst of time and financial pressures, it can be easy to rely on these and skip the sometimes painstaking, time-consuming, or expensive process of due diligence.

Don’t.

As well as being a useful tool for challenging the aforementioned assumptions, it can also uncover information that could change the direction of your idea, by informing it, or (unfortunately) revealing that there may be no market for it.

How to deal when the inevitable happens

Objectivity + Honesty = Understanding

Anyone who has ever tried to create something commercial out of a passion knows that emotion is a crucial driver, but it can also be a barrier to uncovering why that something hasn’t worked.  

It can stop you from shining an objective light on the process and decisions that led you to failure. It can stop you from asking questions of your colleagues and collaborators, and it can stop you from sharing your own thoughts or opinions.

Finding a way to remove emotion from the situation, to share your honest opinion, can lead to an understanding of, if not the root of the failure, at least it’s contributing factors. Understanding why and how something went wrong, is key to moving on from it.

Self-reflect and own it

Just as your emotional investment can stop you from critically investigating a failure, it can also stop you from identifying and accepting your individual role in it.

By applying an objective filter to your actions and decisions, you can identify your weaknesses, areas of inexperience or lack of expertise. Ask the right, hard questions of yourself and be prepared to listen to external feedback as well.

A person who can define and own their role in a failure is empowered to avoid their mistakes in the future, whereas someone who cannot is doomed to repeat them.

How to rise from the ashes…

Adapt

Understanding and dealing with a failure leaves one with a lot of knowledge and the only way to avoid the same mistakes again is to use that knowledge to learn and adapt.

Adapting can happen at an individual level and at a business level. You may have discovered that there is a skill-set you’re lacking that is preventing you from succeeding, or you may have gained a crucial insight from your market that changes the direction of your business.

To support change, you can:

  • Reach out to mentors for advice and guidance - it’s likely they’ve been there before

  • Seek inspiration from different industries

  • Learn new approaches or methodologies from different skillsets or professions

  • Reach out to your competitors - it’s likely you might both be facing the same challenges

Try a different perspective

Failure is, by definition, a lack of success, but this doesn’t have to be a permanent state, nor does it have to be the end of the story.

If you consider failure to be a pit stop on the way to success, then the knowledge and lessons you learn become opportunities. It may be corny, and it may be clichéd but there is one high-profile failure that illustrates this point well:

Google Glass
Announced in 2012, and launched in 2014 at the retail price of $1,500, Glass was one of the first products in wearable tech.

It has also been considered a rare commercial flop for Google.

Consumer feedback centered on two themes:

  1. The glasses didn’t look good and;

  2. Wearing them made people feel uneasy (wearers were called ‘glassholes’).

The product was withdrawn in 2015 and it would have been easy to relegate the unappealing eyewear to the archive of failed products (e.g. Vegemite’s iSnack).

Instead Google’s Alphabet X began interrogating the product against the market data and an opportunity emerged - production. Glass Enterprise Edition (EE) is now being used by workers in factories for companies such as Boeing, DHL, and Volkswagon to improve productivity and safety. 

Some of the 2017 failures that we’ll be keeping an eye on in 2018…

  • Cyber security: everyone from Medicare to Uber has been hacked of late and there is not only an opportunity to improve cyber security technology, but an absolute need for it to improve.

  • Jawbone: while it went into liquidation in July, don’t be surprised if we see more from the talent behind the tech that at its peak was valued at $4.2b. A leader in bluetooth and wearable technology, Jawbone paved the way for companies like FitBit.

  • Tesla: it’s not technically a failure yet, but it does seem as though production will be unable to meet the output required to be commercially viable. Though, as with Jawbone, we may find the success lies in the technology transforming and progressing the industry at large, and the talent goes on to something bigger.