The value of failure

We all make mistakes, but it is only those that learn, and ‘own’ their failure, that make real improvements. BRENDAN LEWIS

Brendan Lewis

By Brendan Lewis

In the late 1980s when I was training to be an Army Reserve Officer, one of the major training (and leadership development) techniques that had a major impact on me was ownership of failure.

If you taught a lesson and more than a handful of people failed the quick test at the end, then you, the instructor, failed. If your team was depressed – your fault. If they got hurt or “killed”, it was your fault. From the smallest mishap to the greatest catastrophe, you owned the problem.

All this failure from a training point of view was massively useful. It let you gain an intimate understanding of why successful strategies or tactics worked, and how to execute on them seamlessly.

From my point of view, this focus on failure worked because of two major reasons:

  1. The objective you were trying to achieve was tightly defined, and therefore the failures had enormous learning value.
  2. There was a culture that accepted, and valued, failure in training as the pathway to sustainable success.

Interestingly, I have recently discovered a connection between the military and creativity.

Preparing for tomorrow night’s Churchill Club Panel on Creativity, I have been reading a book by Nadja Schnetzler called The Idea Machine : How to Produce Ideas Industrially. Nadja runs a Swiss business called The Brain Store, which was founded in 1989. Nadja’s business focuses on the industrial production of ideas, and has a premium client list in Europe and the US.

Anyway, an area that Nadja discusses early on is failure. The Brain Store has a culture that accepts failure on the path to success, and in fact sees it as necessary and highly valuable. The key for them is to tightly describe the question before they start generating ideas to solve it. This ensures that every single failure has value when reviewed. The result of the study of what went wrong leads to the development of the world-beating idea (rather than mediocrity).

The process of tightly describing the question is so important that they have set up a business offering just to train staff! They have a shop front service that allows people on the street to come in and get great ideas for a token fee.

For example, a guy comes in and asks “What shall I buy my girlfriend for her birthday?”. This then gets improved into something that includes pricing information, her interests, what she hates, what you have purchased in the past and what would really excite her. All this and more before the ideas flow.

Nadja describes the process as the difference between failing and flailing.

Failure is good, but when you regularly fail, don’t learn from it and are not sure where you are going, you are just flailing about. I’m sure the Army would agree.

Just too bad that 95% of people I meet in business would rather eat worms than accept they may be responsible for a failure and get value from it.


Brendan Lewis is a serial technology entrepreneur having founded : Ideas Lighting, Carradale Media, Edion, Verve IT, The Churchill Club, Flinders Pacific and L2i Technology Advisory. He has set up businesses for others in Romania, Indonesia and Vietnam. Qualified in IT and Accounting, he has also spent time running an Advertising agency and as a Cavalry Officer with the Australian Army Reserve.

To read more Brendan Lewis blogs, click here.



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