The gifts of failure

I may have written about this before. It’s a trick that I’ve learned intuitively over the years, and I’ve found it tremendously helpful. It tends to work best in situations where the outcome is uncertain.

When adventuring forth into the unknown, we usually focus on the thing that we want to achieve. Even if the chances of it happening are slim, we set our eyes on the prize and commit to persevere through whatever challenges are thrown at us.

It is just before this point that I usually pause and spend a bit of time contemplating the gifts of failure. The question I ask myself is simple: “What good can come out of failing in this venture?” There are usually plenty of platitudes about learning from failure and all that wonderful stuff that is talked about incessantly in books about innovation. This is not what I am looking for.

When I ask that question, I am looking for tangible benefits that might arise as a result of the failure. Once we’ve reached the threshold where we definitely know we’ve been defeated – by circumstances, a worthy foe, or our own limitations – what are we left with?

Put differently, when all we have is to pick up the broken pieces of our failed enterprise, how quickly can we repurpose these pieces to start anew?

If we don’t contemplate this question earnestly, the answer is usually “not much”. In such cases, the collapse is dramatic and total. Very little of the effort put into the project is recoverable. If anything good comes of it, it’s sheer luck.

The stepping stones tactic is one way through which we can maximize this luck. In Greatness Cannot Be Planned, the authors argued that small increments just outside of the adjacent possible – the stepping stones! – are what ultimately feeds innovation and big discoveries.

By reflecting on the gifts of failure, we can sketch our path as a series of stepping stones that we create for ourselves. What are the stepping stones will we need to produce anyway as we walk toward our vision? Which ones can take on the life of their own, and serve us even after our initial project has failed? Through this lens, the product of our endeavor will no longer look like a monolithic thing. Instead, it will be a modular construct that can flexibly rearrange itself into something completely different, becoming highly resilient.

As another tactic more useful for smaller projects, I sometimes maintain a small portfolio of secondary benefits that could be promoted as primary. These benefits must be somewhat independent of each other, so that if the initial attempts prove fruitless, there’s another path forward that opens up by refocusing on another potentiality.

Both of these tactics arise from reflecting on the original question. When we accept that in highly uncertain, volatile environments, any exploration is much more likely to fail than to succeed, we stop seeing the target of our adventure as the mythical “end all be all”, and focus on accumulating opportunities and potentialities along the way.

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