Editor's Desk - November/December 2011

Courting Failure

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."

—Theodore Roosevelt

My daughter is crying on the piano bench again. She has thrown the book to the floor and refuses to keep practicing.

We've talked about this before, but it seems the lesson has not sunk in: Before you can be good at something, you have to be bad at it. It's a hard lesson for a perfectionist to learn, but without it, you can never be more than mediocre.

In an effort to show instead of telling this time, I pull out a book of Chopin's ballades. I sit down and start to play the introduction to one of the pieces. It's a piece I've been trying to learn on and off for the past decade. Maybe more. I get four measures in before my fingers start to fumble, then fail. I stop and look at her.

"What happened?" she asks.

"I haven't practiced it enough to play it," I said. "Yet."

This lesson can be carried into every aspect of our lives. From personal endeavors to business initiatives, you have to be willing to embrace the possibility of failure if you want to do something new, different, innovative, creative.

And innovation is the name of the business game these days. As we emerge, tentatively, from the economic downturn that left so many with sliced budgets and diminished workforces, companies that have already been asking so much of their employees are now asking for more. They are asking for creativity and innovation to help bring the business to the next level.

If innovation is the goal, then risk-taking is the means to the end. But taking risks can be scary, and we all know that fear is a poor motivator. Fear of losing one's job will keep a person trying for just so long. That's why you need to be careful when you ask people to innovate. If they innovate and then fail, what happens? You can't simultaneously encourage risk-takers and punish those whose risks have not paid off.

Also, how do you handle the inevitable frustration that comes from learning something new? Whether it's new hires or existing employees struggling to learn new ropes as they take on different tasks, there's bound to be a learning curve. Do you provide motivational tools and incentives to help get them over the hump?

We forget sometimes that many of the greatest innovations were preceded by grand failures. The real key to success is to not throw the piano book on the floor. To not let the fumbling fingers stop playing forever. To not give up when a business risk fails to pay off, but instead, to take a step back and think: How could this have been better? How can I make this work?

This is not to say that you should take uncalculated risks. Who would attempt to give a piano concert based on sight-reading?

By all means, before you launch an aggressive new incentive program to boost sales and engagement, consider a pilot program to test the waters first. Do your research. Ask questions. Figure out how you can do it better when you roll it out on a larger scale. Before you introduce that innovative new business process, test it out in one division of your company. Before you adopt a new sales approach across the board, see how it works on a single product.

Just don't forget that to do something well, you might have to revisit the drawing board. Sometimes you'll have to go back to the drawing board so many times, you'll want to just throw in the towel. But if you don't take risks at all, you'll never get beyond the status quo. And in the hypercompetitive 21st century, that's a recipe for disaster.

So, consider this letter a little encouragement: Go forth and fail!


Emily Tipping
Editorial Director,


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