Failing Forward

By Tunji Adegbite

Late Steve Jobs, former CEO and founder of Apple

“Every successful individual has failed numerous times. Most of them have failed a lot more often than we have” – Steve Jobs, Founder/former CEO, Apple.

Every successful person has experienced failure, yet society continues to condition us to avoid failure. Survivorship bias distorts our understanding of success by disproportionately focusing on only success stories that defied enormous odds, sometimes glossing over even their failures. Rather than embrace the opportunities it presents, failure is generally regarded as a sign of weakness and poor decision-making, whether in business or our personal lives. We often fall into the single-story trap when examining failures – It is always seen to equate to bad even though it usually provides lessons.

This simplistic view overlooks that some failures are inevitable, some are good, and reduces the valuable benefits that failure provides to a situation that must not be repeated. Not all failures are created equal; context is important. Harvard professor, Amy Edmondson, categorizes failures into three categories:

• Preventable Failures: These occur in predictable operations and usually involve deviations from specified procedures and best practices. An example of this is an ice cream company sending out deliveries without an icebox.

• Unavoidable Failures: These occur in complex systems and arise from unique and unpredictable combinations of needs, people, and problems. An example is an Internet Service Provider experiencing downtime because of the failure of an undersea fibre optic cable.

• Intelligent Failures: These are small “good” failures that occur when experimentation is needed. They provide valuable information to help a business or entrepreneur leap ahead of the competition. This necessary type of failure happens during the innovation process, without which there is no growth. Entrepreneurs and professionals must continue to ideate and try out untested experimentation to expand their business frontiers or improve a business process.

Entrepreneurs must shed any flawed perception of failures and critically analyse all failures to understand the root causes. They must go beyond spotting apparent failures to developing systems to scrutinize all aspects of a business’s functions to detect smaller, veiled negligence and shortcomings, which, when left undetected, can result in much bigger problems.

Failure is a normal part of the entrepreneurial journey that helps to develop resilience and hones instincts, skills that are a must for successful entrepreneurs. Fear of failure is incredibly limiting. It teaches us to “stay inside comfort zones” and play it safe; however, the most successful entrepreneurs — the ones that truly stand out — are built on intelligent risk-taking and experimentation. Embrace failure, and you’re free to take the risks that can reward you with higher profits.

Here are some reasons why it can help you succeed by embracing failure and tips to navigate the journey:

Failure Is An Opportunity To Learn

The truth of entrepreneurship is that you will fail at some point. Understanding that failure is a part of the road to success allows entrepreneurs to react more quickly and adapt better when it does happen. Failures have the inherent capacity to teach us several lessons, and having the right attitude helps you evaluate and improve from them.

While it is okay to take some time to process it, it is important not to dwell on failures as fixating prevents you from moving on and traps you in a negative cycle.

Instead, shift your perspective by taking ownership of errors, examine to understand root causes, and take the learnings.

Failures Challenge Perfectionism And Encourage Innovation

There’s a false belief that conflates success with perfect when as rightly stated by Michelle Obama, “Success has nothing to do with perfection.” Obsessing with perfection can even have the reverse effect and cause failure. Perfection does not exist and aiming for it leads to risk- aversion. The real danger of playing it safe is that it makes you focus on what has already worked in the past.

That’s not how leaders lead or how creative minds innovate. Leaders understand that as an entrepreneur, you have to think big and think boldly.

Failure Builds Internal Capacity

The ability to iterate and navigate setbacks can be beneficial to entrepreneurs during their journey. Any failure you experience is a challenge to conquer and an opportunity for growth. Successful market leaders search for the tough lessons that can be learned from a situation and divest themselves of the fear of failure.

Effective business leaders must master the act of adeptly navigating their way through a variety of them on the way to success.

It is near impossible to build resilience from success alone; strength is created when we face uncomfortable challenges. The more an entrepreneur builds the capacity to overcome momentary challenges, they increase their ability to withstand even greater pressures. Exploring your limits is the only way to discover what your limits are.

Failure Emphasises Importance Of Advisers

Indeed, new ideas might often be so radical that advisors caution against them. However, no successful business leader operates as an island. Seasoned advisors provide a wealth of valuable information and help entrepreneurs escape a cycle of mistakes and setbacks. Entrepreneurs learn from mistakes, but the errors do not have to be yours for you to learn from them.

Advisors offer a fresh perspective and opportunity for business leaders to learn and benefit from mistakes and growth strategies other entrepreneurs have tried before them.

This call to embrace failure is not a kumbaya empty words of motivation. As a professional and entrepreneur, I have experienced several failures. However, my current success would not be possible without my failures. They provided invaluable learning opportunities, honed my instincts, and helped me discover the new ground of expansion opportunities. Failure is a substantial part of every entrepreneurial journey. Embrace it, pursue excellence, and success will chase you!

Adegbite is a thought leader in Strategy and Supply Chain, who is also the founder of Naspire, a business research platform using business insights to help entrepreneurs and professionals in Africa succeed. He can be reached via

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