Every Success is Built on Failure

By Dave Ferrera
failure

All innovation is a process of trial and error.  Unless you make mistakes, you’ll never arrive at a workable solution. I approach failure with my teams as a teaching moment—an inextricable part of the process of experimentation that every new discovery must go through—an opportunity to answer the questions that must be answered prior to design freeze.

Is the material strong enough? Flexible enough? Does the solution actually function the way you anticipated? Every big idea depends on a number of untested theories, and not all of them are going to be right once you pull them off the drawing board. Failure is really just a process of refinement where theory becomes fact, where you go from art to part

Here are the rules that I follow as a leader in my innovation companies to make sure that we get the most out of every misstep.

Be able to pivot and adjust in real-time

Just like a football game, you can plan strategy all week long, but when game day comes, things are going to unfold a little differently than you expected. Maybe the field is wet. Maybe the other team opts for a passing game instead of a ground game. Maybe your quarterback gets injured. You have to be able to respond in the moment if you want to win games. You rely on your plans, but you adjust as you go, and you don’t consider that a failure

Pivoting midstream is hard for engineers and even harder for innovation companies. You’ve built a development plan that gets delayed. These delays may impact your valuation. The Board gets upset because they just want stuff to work. It’s hard to admit that you’ve made a big mistake and have to radically switch up your game plan, but you have to do it. You have to be transparent, and you have to be able to pivot, or you’ll be out of business.

Hire people who know how to fail

Assembling a team that is agile and confident enough to try new things in an R and D lab begins right at recruitment. I like to hire people who have experience with failure, and already understand it as a part of the process of winning. I like hiring former athletes for this reason, because they know what it means to train and prepare and then lose, and get up and play another day.  They understand that there isn’t a player on earth who goes undefeated. They know that if are going to win you have to play, and if you play, sometimes you’re going to lose.

I like to hire people who are competitive, because they will push the envelope in order to win, and they are less concerned that sometimes when you push the margins, you go over the edge. I also like to hire former military, or people who have been in law enforcement. Why? Because these folks are disciplined and fundamentally team-driven. They have faced fluid circumstances and high stakes and have had to adjust in real time and often in life or death situations.

Hiring people who have a familiarity with losing results in an agile and courageous team, that is able to expect failure, make mistakes, and rebound readily from them with new and better ideas.

You can’t teach good character

You can’t teach good character, and you can’t administrate morality. This is why I want people on my team who already have a sound moral compass, and that I can count on to do the right thing. I want people who will admit when they’ve made a mistake, and are transparent about their results, good or bad.

I like to hire young people for this reason, because you have an opportunity to guide and shape their point of view, to encourage them to speak up when they’ve made a mistake, and still have the courage to try new things. I also look for people who have volunteered in their communities, or coached a kid’s team, because these activities require patience, and these folks don’t expect perfection every time. They understand that success is a process of growth, of trial and error, and improvement over time.

I like to hire people who are generous with their time, patient in the pursuit of results, and empathetic. These are all qualities that in my field make for an agile team that is not afraid to fail, and know how to turn failure into wins.

Learn how to talk about failure

As a leader, you have to be able to discuss failure in a productive way, and so does your team. You have to be able to explain to your team, your investors, your Board of Directors, your CEO why something didn’t work, why you made the decisions that you did, and what you intend to do about it.

If you aren’t comfortable talking about failure, you won’t give your team the vocabulary they’ll need to discuss their mistakes productively. This means a team that is afraid to fail, and afraid to tell you about it when they do.  And that is something that every entrepreneur should fear, because if your team isn’t honest with you, you aren’t going to have the first idea about what’s going on in your business.  And the buck stops with you.

if you don’t have periodic design reviews, and communicate the results to the team, then the team doesn’t know whether they have failed or succeeded. You have to include the team in all relevant information. It’s very important to keep everybody fully informed about what’s at stake and what progress is being made.  Budget constraints are an important piece of information as well. This is why a lot of startups fail, because leadership doesn’t know how to talk about the unvarnished truth, and instead keep their teams laboring in silos, and in the dark about the project as a whole.

Addressing failure with transparency, admitting that you were wrong, is never easy. It takes a special person to be able to communicate that they just spent millions of other people’s dollars on a wrong turn. It takes an even braver soul to convince them to give you six million more dollars to fix it.  But that’s in the job description when you’re an entrepreneur. You and your team have to be able to make mistakes, and you have to be able to tell people about it, even people who aren’t going to like it very much. 

Don’t fire your way out of a failure

Firing a team because they made a mistake is the biggest mistake a leader can make. Obviously, sometimes you have to fire somebody for incompetence, but not after one or even two or even three mistakes.  You can’t fire people for trying new things when you are in the business of trying new things.

When you hit a wall and need to figure out what’s next, you need the team that hit the wall to figure out how to get around it on the next pass.  When you fire everybody and put a whole team of new folks on board to fix a mistake they didn’t make, it’s like starting from scratch.  It costs you valuable time and knowledge. You lose the whole history of what you have learned from the trial and error process that is at the heart of productive innovation, and you run the risk of making the very same mistake twice. It also puts your whole team on notice that failure is not tolerated, and without failure, no success is possible.