Inside Logistics

The Leading Edge: Fail faster for success

Columnist Ross Reimer explores how being able to fail may be the key to success


July 3, 2015
by Ross Reimer

Ross Reimer, Leading Edge

Ross Reimer has over 30 years of experience in transportation/supply chain. He was an owner and senior executive with Reimer Express Lines and for the last 15 years has been President of Reimer Associates, a recruitment firm within supply chain.

Many of us have a significant aversion to failure.

From an early age we are encouraged to be careful and avoid making mistakes. Those of us with children can probably think of numerous times we’ve encouraged our kids to take the safe route and avoid risk. I know of one person who decided a hockey helmet was in order for her toddler who was learning to walk!

This thinking becomes part of who we are and dramatically affects our lives, both personally and professionally.

But maybe a better way to long-term success is to embrace failure.

Thomas J Watson Sr led IBM from 1914 to 1956 as chairman and CEO. Under his leadership the company became an international force in business. By any measure he was a hugely successful innovator and leader of people.

Perhaps his most compelling statement was: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

At first glance it doesn’t seem like the most intuitive way to approach success. If we heed Watson’s advice we need to be willing to fail more.

So what does it look like to employ this kind of thinking in our working lives? First, we have to recognize that as leaders we have enormous influence. Perhaps you lead an entire corporation or maybe you lead a small team. Either way the tone you set and the actions you take shape the culture for your team.

In an era where margins are generally thin for most business ventures it can be easy to look only for incremental gains. This kind of thinking is rooted in minimizing risk and rarely produces breakthroughs and dramatic innovation.

What would happen if you employed Watson’s mantra and regularly met with your team to explore risky innovation where failure was part of the process?

Envision a brainstorming session where there are no bad ideas. The team tackles one of your most significant business issues in this fashion. You arrange for an interruption-free and off-line location where each person is encouraged to explore boundary-free solutions with no critical judgment from anyone. The whole exercise is focused around building on each other’s ideas. There’s no pressure to solve the problem in one brainstorming session, and when it’s done you may not have the solution you’re looking for.

What you will have is the beginning of fresh thinking that embraces a new process where failing is part of the road to success. It will lead to new ideas and potential solutions.

As you employ the new ideas and make decisions, the resulting outcomes may or may not be successful. In fact there is a good chance that obstacles will rise and midcourse corrections will be required.

This kind of strategy may well lead to failing faster. It’s at this point that your cultural decision to employ this kind of thinking will be tested. As failure in a particular area becomes clear will you quickly regroup and learn from the results, or will you fall back into much less risky behavior?

The fact is that significant innovation depends upon a collective mindset that accepts failure as an essential part of the path to success. The Wright brothers would never have gotten off the ground without embracing this truth and Neil Armstrong wouldn’t have walked on the moon. Those are dramatic examples, but the final success of their ventures was entirely dependent on thousands and thousands of innovative ideas that didn’t prove successful.

Many midcourse corrections and the determination to pursue success were the key.

I’ve been fortunate to be part of numerous conversations both personally and professionally over the years that were couched in the desire to pursue success while accepting setbacks along the way.

If I were to list some of the ideas that I, and others, have come up with, many of them would look very suspect. That’s okay. Alongside the crazy ideas are some pretty interesting solutions to complex problems. Solutions that would have never have come to the forefront without the willingness to embrace the idea of two steps forward, one step back.

So can Thomas Watson’s exhortation to fail faster be an effective tool in our daily working lives? I believe it can if we, as leaders, are willing to adjust our thinking; if we will purposefully set aside some blocks of time to allow ourselves to look for solutions that are truly outside the box.

Over the long haul there’s no question we will look back on the successes and see how they were directly linked to embracing the inevitability of failure on the journey.