The unusual element necessary for long-term success

What does failure do to you?  Does it stop you in your tracks, make you walk back 2 steps, or invite you to lean in and learn?

When things don’t turn out the way we expect, and we ‘fail,’ if we turn this inward and believe that we are therefore a failure, we ultimately hold ourselves back from everything we were created to be and do in our generation. And we certainly will never embrace ‘failures’ as the necessary element of sustained success that they are.

Growing up learning to ski the mountains of Minnesota (if you’ve never been to Minnesota, we actually only have hills, so you spend more time on a chairlift than you do skiing, but it’s still a blast nonetheless), I knew that if I didn’t fall at least once during a day of skiing, I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough. I couldn’t actually find out how good of a skier I was without falling. I had no idea where my limits were nor where I needed to get better if I didn’t fall and get back up again.

If you’ve ever lifted weights for an extended period of time, you know that muscle failure is an essential part to muscle growth. It’s literally the only way for muscles to change.

For organizations, sustained long-term success depends on how innovative it is over time. Every organization has customers, whether they buy your products or services, provide investment capital, or sit in your church pews. Hopefully your goal is to meet or exceed your customer’s expectations. When customers’ wants or needs change, it’s imperative to respond to those changes, or your organization won’t be around much longer. This change demands that you do something different, something new.

“There’s no way to avoid all risks when doing a new thing.” – Scott Berkun

Doing something new always involves a measure of risk since you can’t predict the outcome with 100% certainty. Leaders therefore must create environments where failing through risk taking is not only okay but is encouraged and celebrated.

Leaders can start by making sure that when anything new is tried it’s viewed as an “experiment.” When we see things as experiments, the fear of failure is removed because there is always something to learn from any type of outcome whether it’s the intended outcome or not. Things might not turn out as expected, but experiments can’t fail; they’re always learning opportunities.

Leaders also need to make sure trust is high between team members. In order for people to willingly engage in risk, a high degree of trust must exist. Since a measure of uncertainty always exists when trying something new, and no one wants their idea or their attempt to “not meet expectations” in front of people they don’t trust, a trusting environment is crucial for genuine innovation to thrive.

And when our experiments don't turn out as hoped, we can’t stop trying. Epiphanies don’t come out of nowhere; they come from hours of thinking, tinkering, and examining a particular problem and tons of solutions (read more about this in Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation). The value that leaders place on creativity and innovation is the biggest determinant of whether an innovative environment will flourish over time. And innovation is ultimately the key to any organization experiencing sustained long-term success as it meets and exceeds its customers’ expectations.