It’s an odd habit of history, and our society moreover, to forget failure and focus only on success – especially in the world of enterprise and business. As a society we tend to look at the big players in the tech space – but gloss over the start-ups who close shop within the first five years of trading.

In reasoning, this is called ‘the Graveyard Fallacy’, or ‘overlooking the graveyard’. But it’s precisely by looking at that graveyard, examining the potholes, determining the dead ends, which makes professional failure – however you define it personally – often more instructive than professional success, and such a big component in the long run to victory.

Failing successfully

If you’ve found yourself in that graveyard, how do you dust yourself off? How can you use your position to your benefit and bounce back? How can you glean the silver lining of your own professional failure? To do that, we want to look at three broad steps of successful failure. 

  1. Find the fault
    The first thing to understand is the objective scale of your failure. What to some might be a total failure, might be to others a minor setback. Seek out informed opinions, team member interviews, non-financial measures, qualitative and quantitative analyses, and market research, to determine the precise form of the flop you’ve made.

    From this soul-searching, you’ll likely stumble upon the critical error that led to disaster. Liken your failed startup to a broken down car. Isolate that faulty part – it might’ve been a specific supplier, financial oversight, toxic working culture, flaw in the original idea, or underestimation of a competitor. Understanding the source (or confluence of sources) of the error will point out the shortest way to reparation.
  2. Save what can be salvaged
    It can be costly to overhaul everything – isolating the error also lets you see what’s working well and doesn’t need repair or financial focus. Can you refocus your team’s efforts? Can you streamline your supply chain while using a tried-and-tested distribution network? Is there a supremely clever line of code which can be cut and paste into a new project?

    It’s worth assessing the shrapnel of your venture on every level so you’re not starting from scratch again. Give yourself the liberty and creative latitude to revisit your original idea, see what worked in it, what moved you about it, and then plug in the conceptual holes with more research, your new knowledge of the market and the risks, and better safeguards against them.
  3. Onwards and upwards
    From here, it’s vital to establish in what form you wish to continue your venture. Do you seek out new finance for a new business? Is a rebrand of your existing business in order? Or do you deem it all unsalvageable, pack up shop and look for something new? There’s no correct answer – it’s a decision that hinges of a number of factors, personal, professional and financial.

    In reaching that decision though, the mindset to have is one of humility. Rededicate yourself to continued learning – maybe expand your network efforts or enroll in a few online courses – and never stop innovating. The smartphone industry is the flagship example of not innovating quick enough.

    The inability to innovate to meet customer demands and customer pressure can eventually be the end of your own vision. Failure gives you the opportunity to briefly remove your blinkers, reposition yourself, and continue.

At the end of the day, it’s not important that you failed. The key to failing successfully is to take something from it that can be used more wisely in future projects or ventures.

For if professional failure teaches us anything, it’s that a great idea is seldom enough to succeed, that luck and timing plays a much bigger role than we readily admit, and that even the leanest business is a great wheelhouse of machinery which all needs to be working to work at all. Know that, and then you win.