Success and failure are very different concepts, but they’ve got something in common: Both are often missed opportunities.
No one likes to fail. Organizations tend to treat falling sales or slow product launches as catastrophes. “We might like the rhetoric of trial and error, but the culture is more often than not trial and terror,” says John Danner, a management consultant and professor, and coauthor of the new book The Other “F” Word: How Smart Leaders, Teams, and Entrepreneurs Put Failure to Work. Blame gets batted about and people distance themselves from the debacle. A better choice? Try to be rational about failure and “reflect on what it’s telling you about what you don’t know,” Danner says. After all, “failure is a strategic resource. It’s a resource you already paid for, a resource you’re creating all the time.”
Of course, precisely because failure is so unpleasant, people naturally feel the need to do something about it, even if it’s not always the right thing. Success creates no such pressing concern, and that can be an even more dangerous problem for organizations. “I have learned firsthand that people do not question success as much as failure,” says Kat Cole, the president of Cinnabon. “Of course, when a store is down in sales, everyone’s up in your business.” When it’s up? “Once you land on an explanation that you feel is most intuitive, you just sort of go with it.” Whether that’s the right explanation or not is a different matter.
Cole saw this years ago when she was working at a Hooters restaurant. Sales were great compared to comparable restaurants, so the higher-ups came in to celebrate. They informed the staff that “You’ve got one of the best managers,” she recalls. “We were like what? There’s something you don’t know.” In reality, he was a fairly ineffective manager, but there was a large construction site nearby, and the workers were in for lunch daily. A little more digging would have turned this up. When you don’t question success in a situation like this, you risk promoting an incompetent manager into a situation where he can do real harm. “You could be celebrating something you absolutely don’t want to duplicate, but you don’t realize that,” says Cole.
Because of that experience, Cole operates under the philosophy of “Trust but verify, and there’s a lot of emphasis on verify,” she says. Questioning success means asking two questions: why, and how do you know? “There’s a natural race to figure out the answers when something is struggling,” she says. “I know people aren’t asking the right questions when something is succeeding.”
This likewise is a missed opportunity. So “don’t kid yourself,” says Danner. “You’re not invincible. There are people out there, trends, and business models that have you right in their sights.” Strategic organizations not only use failure as a resource, they “think about where your successes might have the seeds of vulnerability.” They operate by the “Un-Golden Rule,” he says: “Do until yourself what others are trying to do unto you, but do it first.”
When you do that, then you can be unstoppable.