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12 January 2013

The Importance of failure

Tag(s): Leadership & Management


“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”                   Thomas Edison

In this my 150th blog I want to turn to the importance of failure. Most of us have known failure but there is a perfectly understandable human desire to cover it up and only talk about our successes. When we write a CV or give an interview we will emphasise all our good points and seek to hide our not so good ones.  But only Superman has super powers and even he was vulnerable to Kryptonite!

I am very sceptical of the person who is not willing to admit to the occasional failure, not because I don’t believe them but because I believe that you learn more from failure. I have had to close down brands, factories, even companies and while those are not my happiest memories I learnt much more from those experiences than from whatever success I have enjoyed.

I began this blog with a quote from Thomas Edison who was taking about his eventually successful development of the electric light bulb. He experimented with 10,000 methods that did not work before he used a filament of tungsten that did. Similarly when Head & Shoulders was developed by Procter & Gamble to treat dandruff, a condition experienced by two thirds of people some of the time and a third all of the time, it experimented with 20,000 compounds before it discovered the one that was effective, zinc pyrithione. Some years ago I had the pleasure of having dinner with Sir James Dyson who told me the story of his development of the ‘bag-less’ cyclonic vacuum cleaner. Financed only by his wife’s earnings as an art teacher he spent five years and went through hundreds of prototypes before breaking into the market and taking it by storm. The rest is history but his success is based on Edison’s many ways that wouldn’t work.

Such experimentation is the norm in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, and is one reason why their resulting products are expensive. Even after they have identified an apparently effective cure they must go through highly regulated trials to see what side effects there may be.

Linked to this is the need to make sure that credit is shared. One of the finest bosses I ever worked for was John Coady who was President for Global Development when I was at Mars. It was John who asked me to go to Chile and start a Marketing company there. He used to say “If only we did not worry who gets the credit how much more progress we could make”. Success has many fathers as they say while most run away from failure. But this is odd because we learn so much more from failure. Bill Gates, surely one of the most successful businessmen the world has ever known, is reputed to have deliberately set out to recruit some Vice Presidents who had known their share of failure in their careers because most of his senior team had come up with the company only knowing the extraordinary success of Microsoft. Gates wanted someone around him who would be there if the wheels started to come off and say, I recognise this problem, I’ve faced it before and this is what we should do.

One of the finest managers I ever knew was Akio Morita, the co-founder of Sony. He wrote a short pamphlet with his thoughts on management which is much more valuable in its insights than many of the long books on the subject. He also spoke of trust but in an interesting way:

“Trust your people. This is a most important rule. Too often, top managers are overly concerned about whether or not they themselves are trusted. But if you want to be trusted, you have to trust your people first. If you trust them they will trust you in return.

Trusting your subordinates means being magnanimous enough not to give overly detailed instructions. Relations with subordinates may easily become soured if you are overly eager to exert leadership and give exhaustive instructions.

On the other hand, I am always saying, “Don’t trust anybody!” at the company. While it may sound as if I am contradicting myself, my point is that it is very important to follow up and check whenever you give instructions or ask other people to do something for you. You have to get your subordinates in the habit of always reporting back to you. See to it that the “Plan-Do-Check” cycle is carefully followed.”

This ability to hold two apparently contradictory notions in one’s head at the same time and resolve them is one of the principal lessons I learnt from the Japanese. By contrast the emphasis in much of corporate America on the bottom line at the expense of everything else can lead to poor management.

We can see from these two contrasting styles, the visionary leadership of Akio Morita versus the deadline, bottom line driven autocratic management style, the importance of leadership.  Yesterday's leadership skills will not work in today's fast-moving and evolving world. Only creative leaders who are visionary and empathetic will succeed. I offer the following suggestions as to what you can do to succeed as a creative leader:

1.       Instead of commanding, coach your team and organisation towards success.
2.       Don't manage people, empower them. The know-how, experience, and solutions are often out there; it's a matter of helping people discover them.
3.       Cultivate respect by giving it, instead of demanding it.
4.       Know how to manage both success and failure.
5.       Show graciousness in your management rather than greediness. Be humble about your successes and whenever possible, give someone else the opportunity to shine.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe summed it up when he wrote “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”

The Red Devils are a famous squadron of performance pilots. Anyone who has ever seen their display cannot fail to have been impressed by their breathtaking, dare devil acrobatics. I met some of them once and they told me that after every single performance without fail they have a debrief in which they each contribute a verdict on that performance. Starting with the senior officer they will admit to the slightest error and discuss ways in which it can be avoided in future. Such a discipline is no doubt essential in such a dangerous pursuit. But it is still a valuable practice in business.

In such situations the individual is encouraged to admit his failings so that the team can benefit. However, in business the reverse behavior is more common. People are quick to find fault in others and seek to take the credit for themselves. In the branded companies with which I have been associated I have often found flocks of people keen to associate themselves with the launch of a successful brand- I’ve no doubt done it myself - while few admit to being involved with brands that had to be discontinued - a wonderful euphemism for ‘killed off’. When I was Chairman of Pastmasters, the association in the UK of former associates of the Mars Corporation, I gave a speech to this effect at the annual dinner. I said something to the effect that there were hundreds of people who would seek to take the credit of being behind the success of power brands like the Mars bar or Pedigree Chum but few who would confess to being involved with Spangles or Cupboard Love. I was astonished and delighted when my old friend Gary Luddington stuck his hand in the air and owned up to Spangles!

A lot of failure derives from picking the wrong people in the first place. It is therefore very important to have good skills and processes in recruitment. I was trained to interview both at Procter & Gamble and then again at Mars. In Pedigree Petfoods a group of sales managers were sent on a course in some personnel management techniques of which interviewing was one. Our instructor for the day played the role of a candidate for a position as one of our sales representatives. He outlined his fictitious CV on the black board and then gave us all a chance to ask him questions. By the time it got round to me all the relevant questions seemed to have been asked so I asked my old standby that I had experienced in my own first job interview for Procter & Gamble: "What do you do for fun?” Our instructor in a rather offhand and exasperated way said that he liked to go grass track racing daring me to deduce anything from that. Then he announced that we had all failed because none of us had spotted the two year gap in his CV and so failed to check what occurred at the time. His fictitious persona had gone to Borstal!

The famous politician Enoch Powell said “all political careers end in failure”. In a way he was just expressing a version of the Peter Principle, that is, everyone rises to his own level of incompetence.

In their humorous book The Peter Principle Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull formulated the thesis that employees tend to be given more authority until they cannot work competently. The principle holds that in a hierarchy members are promoted as long as they work competently. Eventually they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent. And there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. Peter’s Corollary states that “in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties” and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence”. From this we can see the concept of “Managing upward” where a subordinate finds ways to subtly manipulate their bosses to prevent them from interfering with the subordinate’s productive activity or to at least limit the damage done by their boss’s incompetence. I have seen many examples of inappropriate promotion of individuals. I observed the Friday evening salesman Monday morning sales manager syndrome by which excellent salesmen were promoted to become inadequate sales managers. It was not that they did not have the potential. But the two jobs are quite different and they were not trained or prepared to do the second job.

So there are two kinds of failure. The first is necessary as it is part of the scientific process, that of experimentation. No scientist is afraid of the failure of his experiment because he has learnt something. By extension we should not be afraid of failure in business if we learn from it both collectively as a learning organisation and individually as one who tries to improve his performance. The second is avoidable and entirely undesirable. A definition of madness is continually doing what does not work.

Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved

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