Sunday 28 December 2014

Learning from failure is the true road to success

Karen Klein

Published 21/08/2014 | 02:30

Bill Gates, co-chair and trustee of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks during a news conference on day two of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the 44th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the five day event runs from Jan. 22-25. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Bill Gates

Last month, Bill Gates revealed his favourite business book.Business Adventures, a formerly out-of-print collection of New Yorker essays by the late journalist John Brooks, chronicles tough business lessons that have been learned by top corporations.

Those lessons include Ford Motor's Edsel flop and Xerox's failure to capitalise on its own research and development.

"Brooks didn't boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success," Mr Gates noted.

The book is unusual in part because inspirational memoirs and "12 Easy Steps to Success" drive the business-publishing market and lecture circuit. The book doesn't fit into those categories.

After all, what entrepreneur risking everything on a start-up wants to read a cautionary tale - let alone an outright downer? It would seem counter-intuitive, but in failure lies lessons that success can't deliver.

The problem with the overwhelming focus on success is that valuable insights from failure are drowned out.

This tendency is called "survivorship bias," says author David McRaney, who writes and speaks about cognitive biases.

"The advice business is a monopoly run by survivors," he said.

"When something becomes a non-survivor, it is either completely eliminated, or whatever voice it has is muted to zero," he added.

What makes survivorship bias so insidious is that winners may not really know why they came out on top.

In fact, luck and timing probably played larger roles than most realise or will admit, especially those busy trumpeting their incisive strategy and bold leadership.

"A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight," according to Mr McRaney.

"If you bet everything on this one hunch and it works out, you succeed."

When entrepreneurs ask me for book recommendations, I always start with Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years.

The title often elicits puzzled reactions.

I explain that I interviewed co-author Paul Carroll, co-founder of the Devil's Advocate Group, when the book came out, because a systematic study of failure was long overdue.

But Mr Carroll told me that it wasn't easy to get the book published. And, despite great reviews, it didn't exactly fly off the shelves.

"I'd say the general reaction was: 'Great idea. High time someone looked at the lessons to be learned from failures. I'd love to read that book.' But not enough did," explained Mr Carroll.

Having witnessed a few devastating business flameouts up close, I wish more people would get the full picture before they take the leap into business ownership.

Mr McRaney tells people to correct for the natural human bias toward happy stories by seeking out examples of failure and learning from them. "Really, always think to yourself: What is missing from this story?" he urges.

"When you're looking for advice from a person who's only telling you what to do - but never saying what not to do - you're getting a biased view of the world," he insists.

When I wrote a column about failure stories a few years ago, it wasn't easy to get entrepreneurs on the record.

Those who did talk to me were more eager to discuss their current business successes than to dissect their previous failures.

Yet a new study suggests that people who try and fail at business are far more likely to succeed if they pick themselves up and start over again.

Maybe if more entrepreneurs confessed to failure - and more would-be entrepreneurs listened to them instead of succumbing to survivorship bias - the pitfalls of start-up ventures could be avoided more often.

Mr McRaney applauds Silicon Valley's failure culture.

He says he hopes it will catch on outside the technology industry.

Success, as he defines it, is "serially avoiding catastrophic failure while
 routinely absorbing manageable damage".

It may not be everyone's definition, mind you, but if only he could turn that into "Nine Easy Steps". Then he just might have something.

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