Learning from failure

Entrepreneurs, innovators, scientists, authors, academics and many other successful people have something in common: a record of failure.

More precisely, they share an ability to learn from their failures – and they use that new knowledge to keep going.

As a new enterprise Triangle Consulting is going to have its share of failures. We had one recently – a project that attracted a bit of support, but not enough to deliver the program as planned.

Looking back, there are some things we could have done better:

  • spending more time on developing our public profile as a provider of programs and services before we tried to launch this particular one
  • being more innovative in the design and delivery of the program
  • taking a stronger role in marketing the idea to its potential audience, instead of relying on our business partner to do that
  • testing the price of the program before launch

We still think our original idea is worth pursuing – but we will test that assumption before trying again.

One way to test an idea is by looking at it critically from the perspective of various stakeholder groups: how would a finance manager assess the cost and risk? What about an HR manager? A subject matter expert?

Another method is the competitor analysis: examining the products and related services offered by other providers in the marketplace. We already did this, but it’s worth revisiting to see if we missed any important insights.

In 2010 neurobiologist Dr Melanie Stefan proposed that scientists should keep an ‘alternative CV of failures,’ tracking the abstracts rejected, the grants not funded, the job applications that went nowhere.

“As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected.” (Stefan, 2010, in Nature 468, 467, doi:10.1038/nj7322-467a)

Pundits in other fields have taken up this idea (Harvard Business Review, New York Times). An anti-portfolio is not about wallowing in negative feelings. It’s a prompt to help you think analytically about what happened in the past.

Over time, a failure CV becomes a record of your intellectual development as you try new ideas, iterate and improve them. It sets you up for better choices about how to spend your time and energy in the future.

So: hooray for the first entry in Triangle Consulting’s failure resume. It’s a milestone in our business journey. Onward ho!

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