02.08.17

Treat Failure Like a Scientist–Hypothesize, Experiment, Learn, & Pivot

By: Karl R. LaPan, President & CEO, The NIIC

“Failure is simply a cost you have to pay on the way to being right.” – Seth Godin

Continuing on my recent blogs on failure, this week I want to talk about the implications of failure in our professional growth and in the development of your own venture.

We tend to make failure a personal thing. It can be hard to put distance between ourselves as entrepreneurs and our shortcomings in business. Put simply, we internalize failure and tell ourselves negative messages, but smart & savvy entrepreneurs never let failure define them. We can learn a lot from the scientific method when approaching failure. What do scientists do when they want to prove something to be scientifically valid? They hypothesize and experiment—and repeat as necessary.

Challenging legacy beliefs is not for the faint of heart. True innovation at its core disrupts legacy beliefs. The CEO of McDonald’s is challenging why they serve hamburgers in its restaurants. Marriott is challenging why a more communal living (sharing common space with separate bedrooms) approach to occupancy in its hotels may be appealing to business travelers over individual rooms.

The learning and growth occur in the process. In other words, the journey becomes more insightful than the destination. Your failures are simply observations that can help lead you to “a better right” answer, or in the case of business—increase your odds of future success. Zig Ziglar got it right when he said, “Failure is an event, not a person. Yesterday ended last night. Today is a brand new day…and it’s yours.” Ziglar’s comment is pretty uplifting and empowering!

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that you should intentionally make mistakes or that failing is easy or painless. Most of the time, we fail even when trying to do things “right.” If you’re focused on trying anything new in your business, then you’re basically taking a chance and in effect, experimenting. And as you know, with the scientific method, sometimes experiments don’t go as planned. Our initial hypothesis can be proven wrong and we sometimes have to start again from square one. Armed with new insights, inquiry, and observations, we can iterate and pivot to refine and improve our idea and connect the dots – data leading us to a better right answer.

As I’ve said before, failure is sometimes the price of admission for any venture worth pursuing. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you can’t be afraid of the potential outcomes, which may include failure, false starts or big mistakes. As we all learned in our Corporate Finance class in college, the higher the risk, the higher the potential return. The challenge is to remove the emotion from failure and when it occurs, to learn and recover quickly from it. How many times do you think the researcher who developed the polio vaccine had to start over? What about the inventor of the television? If they had accepted failure as the only option, imagine how different the history books and our lives would be.

The lesson here? Always be experimenting, pivoting and always be learning, discovering, and putting the pieces together – like a scientist. Keep in mind, you just need to start.

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