Thu, April 25, 2024

Failure is an Option

I recently assigned the MBA students in my Operations and Supply Chain Management course a very challenging case study to analyze. As I assigned the case, it brought back memories for me of the first time I assigned this case to a class of very gifted full-time MBA students at a previous institution at which I served as a faculty member. I team-taught the course with another faculty member who called me the day before the case analysis was due to ask me if I had recently checked the “Blackboard” site for our course. (Blackboard is one of the many “learning management systems” used by colleges and universities to allow instructors and students to communicate and share information with each other.) I told her that I had not and she indicated it might be a good idea for me to do so as there was an impending “mutiny.” When I checked Blackboard, I saw that many students were expressing concern and frustration as they struggled with the case. I did not respond to any of their postings, but thought about how I might handle class the next day. I wanted to see how this gifted group would deal with these struggles and I believed they would be better for the experience, for a number of reasons I will address below.

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The next day, our class started at 8 a.m. I made sure to arrive well before any of my students did and wrote one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Edison on the whiteboard: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Under that, I wrote what I call “Franza’s Corollary” to Edison’s quote, which is: “I did not fail 10,000 times, I learned 10,000 new things.” After that, I left the classroom and did not return until the students were in their seats and had a chance to read what was on the whiteboard. As noted above, this was a very bright class, so they grasped my message very clearly.  Even though they may not have fully “solved” the case correctly, they realized that was not the point.  By struggling and grappling with a challenging assignment, they learned much, not only about the subject at hand, but also about themselves and how to deal with challenges and failures in the future.

Unfortunately, a number of the students in my class had rarely ever dealt with failure in the past, thus, causing the near-mutiny. While you do not want to make failure a habit, failure is good for you, your business, and your children. Though we often try to protect ourselves and those close to us from failure, that is actually a disservice. If we do not put ourselves or our businesses at risk for some type of failure, we are probably selling ourselves short and not striving to be the best that we can be. Plus, as noted above, there are benefits to failure. I learned this as I matured and reflected on my life and it made me a better parent by allowing my children to garner the benefits of failure at an early age. As you move forward in your business and personal lives, here are some of the many ways you can take advantage of your failures:

  • Learning and personal growth: Like my near-mutinous students, you can learn much from your failures. The case I gave them challenged them and while they initially struggled and failed to solve the case, the process of grappling with it enabled them to learn much about improving processes. Failure enables you to try different approaches and improvement methods, expanding your personal and professional “toolboxes.”
  • Eliminating Fear of Failure: As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal…” Once you have experienced failure and realize this, you are better able to take more calculated risks, particularly in your business.
  • Resilience: The remainder of the above Churchill quote is, “…It is the courage to continue that counts.” One of the great lessons of failure, and one we can certainly learn from Edison, is to keep at it despite failure. Failure helps build the mental toughness needed to succeed not only in business, but in many other fields and teaches us how to bounce back from adversity.
  • Motivation: When my older daughter was a young teen, she was cut from a travel volleyball team that she really wanted to make. At the tryout for that team, she was given a number to attach to her jersey so that they could identify her. After failing to make that team, she taped that number to her bathroom mirror as a source of motivation. About 9 years later, when we were moving her out of her college apartment after she graduated, I noticed that number tacked to a corkboard she had in her room. That failure motivated her for many years to follow and likely still motivates her.
  • Humility, Character, and Appreciation: Failures tend to make us better people and better managers. It provides us with humility, builds character and empathy, and enables us to better our successes and the success of others.

 

We have all heard the expression, “Failure is not an option,” and in many critical situations, that may well be the case. However, in most cases, failure is not that bad of an option, and in fact, one with many positives. Hopefully, as my students work on their cases and as you take reasonable risks in your business, that both success and failure have their benefits.

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