Ashley Good stood on stage, her arms spread above her head in a Y formation. Hundreds of people stood in front of her in the same stance. And then, in unison, they all chanted “How Interesting!”
This was the odd scene at the PROFITguide/Chatelaine W100 Idea Exchange closing keynote in Toronto on June 5, where Good—founder and CEO of the consultancy Fail Forward—was trying to get conference attendees to reframe how they think about failure. “I want to redefine failure,” Good told the crowd that afternoon. “Because the dictionary definition of failure as a lack of success’ is entirely unhelpful. I would love for everyone to instead define failure as a teachable moment.”
Hence the arms-raised power-pose and the two-word mantra—intended to be a ritual that entrepreneurs can use when they’re feeling bad about something. The posture short-circuits the gloomy, slouchy body language that we assume when thinking about our failures, while the phrase “how interesting” emphasizes that we shouldn’t shrink from our failure or sulk about it, but instead examine it closely and treat it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
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“Imagine what would happen,” said Good, “if every time we failed, instead of pointing fingers, we said to ourselves: How fascinating! What did I learn?'”
And failure is ultimately what points us toward success—if we’re paying attention, that is. “Failure is an indicator that we’re really onto something interesting,” says Good. “Any time we’re doing something interesting there are going to be elements of failure in what we do. So the best thing we can do in those instances are deal with it as productively as possible. That doesn’t mean celebrating it—but it does mean learning as much as we can from it.”
Good became a failure guru after a stint with Engineers Without Borders where, ironically enough, she had tried to start a project researching organizational failures within EWB—a project that ultimately bombed. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a lot to learn from studying how organizations failed. The result was Fail Forward, which now offers consulting, speaking and research services to a broad range of clients.
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Exercises like the arm-raising and chanting, even if they may feel ridiculous, are necessary, Good says, because our natural instinct is to shut down and withdraw in the face of our own mistakes. “In times of failure we are going to react badly,” she says, and that is perfectly natural. “We’re hardwired to behave defensively,” to blame other people or external factors we can’t control.
To avoid these traps, Good wrapped up with a few practical strategies for planning for failure and being ready for it when—not if—it comes. One is to schedule time to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. “We don’t value it if we don’t make time for it,” she says. Explicitly putting time to reflect in your calendar works.
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Second is to include learning as a specific goal for your projects—not confining your goal to just to shipping a product or signing a contract, but always making the acquisition of a new piece of knowledge a requirement for success.
Third is to set out as clearly as possible your tolerance for risk. Some entrepreneurs are willing to put more on the line than others, and that’s perfectly natural. But knowing exactly how much risk you can stomach—and what the consequences of failure could be—allows you to take leaps on new initiatives that could be transformative for your business.
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Finally, once you’ve gotten better at examining and learning from failure, it does you no good to hoard that knowledge, so spread it around. “Are there other people that could really benefit from that experience?” Good asked. You bet there are. The only thing worse than failing once is making the same failure again, so getting knowledge out in the open as much as possible can prevent repeating costly mistakes, freeing up time that may be better spent on success.
Ultimately, Good believes failure is a skill that we can improve at, just like interviewing job candidates or reading a balance sheet. We can build that skill, to learn how to learn,” says Good. Paradoxically, we can get better at failing. “And as we build that skill it gives us more room to take smart risks and innovate.”
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- What Failure Taught Me »
How do you react to failure? Do you treat it as a lack of success, or as a teachable moment? Share your thoughts using the comments section below.