Sometimes failure is an option

The Long of Coming Up Short

Thumbnail image for Whitney Johnson 2.jpgI didn’t take Calculus in high school, and I almost didn’t take Advanced Placement (AP) American History for fear that I wouldn’t get an A. In retrospect, given that I’ve pursued a career in finance, achieving a B in Calculus rather than knowing little to nothing on the topic would have been a decent trade. Yet I was so concerned about getting anything less than an A, which for me was tantamount to an F, that I wouldn’t take the risk.

Fear of failure can be a debilitating trait personally and professionally. According to Dr. Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota, an expert on stress and coping in children (as quoted in Mind in the Making, by Ellen Galinsky), we must learn to fail so that we can learn to succeed. She explains, “if you never allow your children to exceed what they can do, how are they going to learn to manage adult life — where a lot of it is managing more than you thought you could manage?” The same is true in the workplace: If we never have the opportunity to exceed what we can do, or think we can do, how will we manage?

When we are doing the work we really want to do, and hoping to triumph professionally, we will likely experience failures, and experience them repeatedly. And we’ll be in good company. According to Columbia University professor Amar V. Bhide, for 90% of all successful new businesses, the strategy the founders initially pursued didn’t lead to the business’s success. Meanwhile, Dr. Fritz Grupe, founder of, has found that 80% of college-bound students have yet to choose a major, and “50% of those who do declare a major, change majors — with many doing so two and three times during their college years.” That’s a lot of intermediate failures, or at the very least detours, before arriving at success.

One way we practice learning to fail is by institutionalizing opportunities to take on challenges. Singapore has, in part, become one of the world’s leaders in math education because a lesson isn’t complete if the students haven’t been given something they don’t know how to do. In the words of George Polya, a Hungarian mathematician and educator, we need to build processes into our work to find “a way out of difficulty, a way around an obstacle, attaining an aim which is not immediately attainable.”


An important aspect of a resilient organization is the ability to deal with failure. In a complex world with a multitude of difficult problems, success is not always immediately possible. It can take several iterative steps through failure to find the right solution, to gain wisdom.

I’ve written about the DIKW model of Innovation. Data is manipulated by humans to become different forms of information. The interconversion of information produces knowledge, which results in the ability to make a decision. Often this decision may be to recognize that previous attempts were wrong – a failure – and need to be modified, resulting in another iteration of the DIK cycle.

In a resilient company, each iteration drives the organization towards wisdom – the ability to make the correct decision.

Often, a good strategy is to find out the things that do not work – that are successful failures. An example I use in game play is called Bulls and Creots. Trying to guess a four digit number, with correct numbers in the right place called Bulls and correct numbers in the wrong place called Creots.

There are about 4500 possible numbers assuming no repeats and no zero in the first position. It helps to have a system to work through the possibilities in the best possible fashion. However, the most informative answer is to be completely wrong.

Guessing 4 numbers that are not in the answer removes 40% of the possibilities. One failure greatly limits the future possibilities, making it much easier to narrow down on the correct solutions.

I worked at a biotechnology company called Immunex for 16 years. It was a very well-run, innovative company that did a pretty good job accepting failure if well done. It was one of those 90% of businesses that found success at something different from the initial idea.

Too many companies believe that if they only promote those who are always successful, then they will always win. They fail to recognize that sometimes success can be debilitating and that sometimes failure is liberating.

In a complex world, sometimes the path to wisdom requires failure.

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