How Failure Can Be A Blessing–Or Just A Failure

A Critical Doer keeps risk and failure in context with opportunity and success 


Perspective changes everything.  To one, failure may be a blessing.  To another, failure may be exactly that…failure.  An article I recently came across written by Professor Baba Shiv at the Stanford School of Business uses the word blessing to describe failure as it is often a precursor to innovation.

I don’t have the academic credentials to argue against a professor from Stanford…but I’m going to do it anyway.  Take a look at his article and when you return, I’ll tell you why.

It’s not that Professor Shiv’s argument is wrong…it’s not complete and the missing part is what makes failure a part of the natural process of innovation or the unnecessary demise of an organization.  The missing part is determination and mitigation of risk.

To frame this properly, you need to firmly grasp the meaning and relationship of two words…risk and reckless.  In a recent podcast with Dr. Dale Callahan on “Company of One” I used an analogy that reckless is to risk as gambling is to investing.  Someone acts recklessly when due diligence has not been given to negative outcomes and presses ahead anyway.  Reckless becomes reasonable risk through a methodical process of turning unkown into known.  When this is done, negative outcomes won’t be terminal and your organization has life to try again.

Another part of the missing discussion on risk has to do with timing.  There are times and places where organizations should try new things.  It is reckless and could be terminal to try something new with your best customer when the outcome could not only be devastating for you but devastating for your customer as well.  A methodical process of experimentation to build a body of evidence, communication to manage expectation, and finally rollout is a disciplined way to manage risk while ensuring the failures that are a natural byproduct of innovation are not terminal.

As Critical Doers, we have to understand the role of failure while balancing failures with the necessity of keeping an organization viable. While recognizing the merits of Professor Shiv’s arguments, I also encourage you to focus on the practical nature of our philosophy to keep failure in context with opportunity and success.  Failure is okay…failure is necessary…failure is terminal if it’s not managed responsibly.  Encouraging innovation within the context of a healthy organization is what a Critical Doer would…do!


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Updated: April 25, 2015 — 1:00 pm


  1. When I read Shiv’s article, my thoughts were, “Why is he over-complicating the issue of failure?” Maybe it’s just my simple country boy, common sense perspective, but with anything you do, go forward, try your best NOT to fail by being a prepared as possible, but if you do fail, learn from it and go forward again armed with the knowledge of what NOT to do.

  2. I have a dream which I am working to turn into a goal. The path has many opportunities for choices in the pursuit of that goal.

    Not all choices I make have the effect I desired.

    But EVERY choice I make generates evidence for my analysis and to inform future choices.

    For me a failure constitutes an activity from which I was unable to gather any evidence — good or bad.

    Success is getting better just flat getting better — or eliminating choices that don’t further my journey toward my goal.

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