10 ways failure leads to success

It may seem like a contradiction, but thinking you're always right is a sure path to failure, while admitting and learning from failure inevitably leads to success.

From the time we're little, we're told that time heals all wounds. But nobody tells us it's only half true. When the wounds are inflicted by somebody else, fine. But when wounds are self-inflicted — also known as mistakes — all the time in the world won't heal them if we don't acknowledge them.

Failure is a little bit different, but the concept is similar. Failing to admit and learn from failure will only lead to more dramatic failure. The converse is also true: Admitting and learning from failure will ultimately lead to success.

Unfortunately, many leaders seem to be allergic to the whole idea of admitting failure. I've seen it dozens of times with business leaders, political leaders, CEOs, and executives. Why that is, I don't know, but it may have something to do with how success gives leaders a big head, as we discussed in The Problem with Know-It-All Managers.

Regardless, systemic business failure, corporate failure, and personal failure typically come down to leaders or managers sticking their heads in the sand. Don't be one of them. Instead, master these 10 ways failure leads to success.

Note: This article originally appeared as an entry in BNET's The Corner Office blog. It's also available as a PDF download.

1: Change management

Ever try changing a company system or process that involves lots of people? If you have, you've failed. And if you didn't learn from it, you're still no good at it.

2: Employee

What, you were a great employee out of the gate? Come on, tell the truth. You made mistakes; that's how you learned how things work, how to get things done, when to take a stand, and when to suck it up. Or maybe you didn't. Hmm.

3: Turnarounds

Turnarounds start by clearly stating the problem, what went wrong. Sometimes it takes a few iterations, as with IBM, Apple, and HP. Some boards wait too long, as with Nortel. Are Sprint, Sony, and Dell next?

4: Managing people

I don't care what business schools say: You don't learn this in school. You learn it on the job by making mistakes and learning what works and what doesn't. Period.

5: The scientific method

It's built on the concept of making an assumption, experimenting, proving it wrong, and continuing until you can't prove it wrong.

6: Innovation

The whole startup innovation loop is a learning curve based on trial and error. Sure, we love the Google and Facebook founders' stories, but far more common are entrepreneurs who failed multiple times before nailing it.

7: Consulting

Um, not to get too specific, but the only reason I have any success as a consultant is that I made dozens of mistakes over two decades in corporations. It's called "learning the ropes."

8: Strategic planning

Any strategic planning process must begin with an analysis of what's working and what isn't. The "W" in SWOT stands for weaknesses, and with good reason.

9: Postmortems

If you don't do postmortems on lost customers and failed product launches and marketing campaigns, you're far less likely to get it right the next time.

10: Relationships

If you need me to explain how failed relationships — personal, business, whatever — make you a better partner and team player, you have bigger problems than I can help you with.

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