I find it fitting that I am writing this from a tiny cafe deep in the labyrinth of Hong Kong’s SoHo District. I arrived a few days ago as part of my recent push to expand my business into China. Ironically, it just dawned on me that I am doing exactly that which I am writing about – taking a risk and consciously tempting failure. It also struck me how these two former enemies of mine have become such good companions over the years. Like many leaders and entrepreneurs, I have learned that risk and failure are the progenitors of success.
Much has been written about success, from Tom Peter’s “In Search of Excellence” to Steven Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People”. Now the new fixation in management thinking seems to be about failure, and it is here that I think we have really struck gold.
Failure Begets Success
The basic argument is that success and failure are in fact not polar opposites: you often need the second to enjoy the first. Indeed, much of my work focuses on helping business leaders to stick their necks out so that they can realize quite different and improved results. Certainly the most common fear that I hear of from clients is that of failure. But it is failure that proves to be grist for the richest vein of learning. Learning from failure can be the engine of startling innovation and creativity. It took Thomas Edison 9000 experiments to concoct the successful version of the light bulb. While this may be an extreme example, the key is that learning from failure begets extraordinary accomplishments.
Individuals and companies will do themselves no favors by embracing failure if they do not learn from it or how to manage it. Failing small and failing fast is a useful strategy. By placing small bets, as opposed to riskier larger ones, you or your company can limit the downside of failure. Going down multiple avenues, ruling out those that lead to dead ends, and developing further those that prove promising is what leads to breakthroughs and previously unimagined possibilities.
When I first came to China several years back it was simply as a tourist. After experiencing the palpable and rocketing energy of entrepreneurialism in Shanghai, I realized that something very powerful was happening here in Asia. I knew that I wanted to become part of this amazing phenomenon. A combination of small steps, experimentation and analysis have lead to promising partnerships and opportunity to impact corporate culture in a way and on a scale I never imagined. Risk and failure have served me well.
What roles do risk and failure play in your life or business? How do they play out? Is it a limiting or freeing role?