How to Learn From Failure Without Wasting Time & Resources

There’s a myth in business that success means perfection on the first try. We think that if we fail, we must scrap everything we’ve done and start over again. If this sounds discouraging to you, you’ll be pleased to hear that failure does not always necessitate starting over. In fact, failure is a tool that can help us become better and achieve more.

Resist the urge to purge

Failure is frustrating. Sometimes, in our frustration, we “purge” and waste perfectly good aspects of our business that don’t need to be scrapped. Ultimately, starting over unnecessarily could mean you end up outputting more money and man-hours than you need to, costing you more in the long run. Of course, on occasion, starting from scratch is necessary. But it’s best to determine that before you waste valuable time, energy, and resources, not after.

Figure out what isn’t working, cut it out, and keep moving forward.

When you think you have a food allergy, you don’t just stop eating all food, you remove a specific type of food from your diet and see if your symptoms go away. If, after a while, you don’t notice a difference, you go back to the drawing board and eliminate something else from your diet.

It’s the same way with your business. If you’re trying to grow and learn from failure without wasting time, take a conservative approach. Look at the situation with a critical eye, and nail down what made it fail. Then make a few necessary changes, and see if things improve. For example, if your website isn’t getting hardly any traffic, it could be because it isn’t optimized for mobile devices. So, what do you do? You don’t take down your whole website and start over. You optimize it and see if traffic improves. Then, if that doesn’t work, you troubleshoot some more until you figure it out.

Learn from failure by being okay with failure.

Failure does not mean everything you’ve done up until this point was a waste. Failure means you made progress! Just do your best and learn how to see failure for what it is–a tool, something to learn from–instead of losing courage and throwing away all of your hard work in frustration. We love this quote from Thomas Edison:

“I never allow myself to become discouraged under any circumstances. I recall that after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed ‘to find out anything.’ I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way. We sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of.”

-Thomas Edison, in an interview with American Magazine (Volume 91, page 89)

Plan to fail and succeed in the process?

Every business has room for improvement, and failure is a (sometimes) painful reminder of that. But failure can be an incredibly good thing if it is handled in a healthy manner. Amy C. Edmondson, author and Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School says that “a failure resulting from thoughtful experimentation that generates valuable information may actually be praiseworthy.” She shares several good strategies for learning from failure, including not automatically assigning blame. (Just because something went wrong doesn’t mean it’s someone’s fault.) She also talks about how “not all failures are created equal,” and she argues that there is some productivity in trying and failing vs. not trying in order to avoid failing.

It doesn’t ever feel productive or worthwhile to fail, but with the right response, we can make it both of those things. Failure’s not a roadblock, it’s a detour. So don’t give up or start over if you can simply take a back road and get right back on the interstate.