How to Fail Your Way to Success

We all get a lot of advice on how to be successful: work hard, be positive, have a great plan, put points on the scoreboard. What we don’t get a lot of advice on is the value of failure, and how to handle it.

Most people set out with the best of intentions, but things don’t always go to plan. Whether it’s an idea that didn’t quite pan out, faulty execution, bad timing, aggressive risk-taking, or unforeseen factors – there are a wide range of circumstances that can lead to “failure.”

However, failure is also a necessary part of big success. If someone cannot name any failures in their career, it’s usually a sign that either they aren’t pushing themselves and their teams to reach new levels of excellence, or they’re playing too conservatively. We can all name well-known individuals in business, entertainment, sports and other disciplines who failed miserably before becoming wildly successful. So why is it so hard for us to internalize the importance of failing as part of our successful career journey?

Maybe it’s because failure can feel uncomfortable, scary and de-motivating, especially in the moment. Or maybe the culture you’re a part of doesn’t “allow it.” But failure is an important source of growth that needs to be embraced. Below are some lessons I’ve learned about how to value, manage and even cultivate failure on the path to growth and success.

As a leader, focus more intently on powering your people

Productivity is multiplied when people feel empowered to do their best work in an environment that supports curiosity, creativity and innovation. Encouraging people to invest themselves in the biggest issues your company and customers face – and to develop new ways of serving them – is a critical precursor to growth. Supporting these efforts, along with appropriate risk taking, will pay big dividends and create more energy and vitality in your culture.

If your team isn’t rising to this type of challenge, get closer to your people and figure out what’s holding them back. It may be that they’re not being utilized properly, or that they’re not set up for success. As leaders, success is not micromanaging every project to finality, but rather opening doors for your people, removing obstacles, asking the right questions, and inspiring them to succeed.

Adjust your expectations and strive to deliver value, not perfection

The traditional approach of having big, often bloated multi-year projects with one “perfect” release at the end is less viable in our quickly changing world. I call these the field of dreams projects, as in “if you build it, we presume they will come.” The days of “big, perfect and slow” need to be replaced with “small, nimble, test, learn, adjust.” It’s a common “Type A” instinct to want to build something perfect, but the fact is customers just don’t have the time or patience to wait for perfection. With so many options at their fingertips, they just move on.

That’s why speed and agility are so important these days. By starting smaller and embracing test & learn, you can understand so much more quickly whether something works or not – and that is so much better than finding out at the end of a long and expensive process. You’ll probably find that you can deliver value much faster by breaking work up into smaller and more iterative steps, testing and learning with your customers, listening to their feedback, and course correcting quickly to get back on track. Failure becomes not only manageable – it becomes an essential part of your R&D effort.

If something feels off track, have the guts to admit it and then act decisively

In many corporate cultures, admitting that a large project has not gone according to plan can be very difficult. This is very destructive – not just because money and time are being wasted, but more importantly because it reinforces a negative, counterproductive and political culture where truth, speed, associate energy and productivity get compromised. Leaders need to have the courage and fortitude to admit you’re on the wrong path and to openly explore options to get on the right one.

Once you do that, you open the door to all kinds of actionable change. Maybe your timeline is wrong; maybe your goals or objectives need to be adjusted; or maybe you need a change in some skill sets? Whatever the reason, taking stock of the situation and acting decisively to strengthen your foundation are powerful first steps in turning the ship around. Most importantly, it will drive improved accountability and productivity.

Embrace failure as a form of learning

For many, failure has never been an option. But today that’s changing as failure is no longer viewed as failure. With technology pushing the world to move so fast, companies and organizations can no longer afford not to learn through failure. If you haven’t recently failed at something, you’re likely not pushing the boundaries of innovation far enough or moving fast enough to keep pace with your competition.

Fear to fail means fear to innovate and take risks. The key is to breed a different culture – one that embraces innovation and risk taking; a culture which views failure not as losing, but of learning; one where employees have the courage to fail in the face of complacency; and where pulling a product or service off the shelf is viewed as smart judgment and effective use of resources, not as disappointment.

Views expressed are as of November 21, 2016. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the author and speakers, as applicable, and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments.
Kathleen Murphy
About the author: 

Kathleen Murphy is the President – Personal Investing at Fidelity Investments. Kathleen also manages   the brand, advertising, mobile and online strategies for Fidelity.  Her executive career includes serving as CEO of ING U.S. Wealth Management, and as Chief Compliance Officer at Aetna Financial Services.  Ms. Murphy sits on the Board of Directors and Executive Committees of America’s Promise Alliance and the National Football Foundation.  She has been named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business” by Fortune magazine, and one of the “25 Most Powerful Women in Finance” by US Banker.  Kathleen is also an “influencer” on LinkedIn.