Successful failure - Insights from Derek Baker

  • 3 minutes, 9 seconds reading time
  • February 21, 2018

Successful failure - Insights from Derek Baker

Failure focuses the mind and forces companies to consider why they exist , what it is that they offer, and how they are differ from their competitors.

Failure is not a topic that most business owners or managers have very high on their ‘to do’ list. It is the thing that is not discussed, forever the ‘elephant in the room’. It won’t be compulsory study on all those MBA courses, or something a hiring manager looks for when seeking a senior executive. Failure is not considered an option, but great success most often follows from failure. Unless an individual or a company has experienced failure they are unlikely to develop the skills and insights that guarantee success. Failure focuses the mind and forces companies to consider why they exist , what it is that they offer, and how they are differ from their competitors.

My insights into the power of failure come from having worked for global leaders in IT, Telecoms, and Aviation. Despite their very different products and industries they have all experienced almost terminal failure, and what makes them special is how they responded to that failure and how they continue to evolve. In this short piece I share some insights on how learning from failure transformed three key businesses.

Many companies grow so rapidly that they soon become detached from the values and ways of working that got them into growth in the first place. Expansion and sustaining growth are then underpinned by hiring the wrong type of people and creating a corporate culture which is unrecognisable from the one with which they started. Often those new hires have invariably been successful elsewhere at companies which are stuck in ‘maturity’ and no longer growing. Inevitably those people try to re-create the company culture to match one in which they are comfortable. Long term staff, and even the founders leave, innovation stumbles, ‘safe’ products and services begin to dominate, and the very things that made the company attractive are lost.

A rapid decline follows. Customers jump ship, more staff leave, confidence evaporates. At this point either the company disappears or these cataclysmic events force it into a total re-think and re-launch. Maybe a founder returns or re-asserts their authority, or the board quits. Whatever it is we see a re-birth with many of the points below amongst the critical factors for renewed success.

  • they try to understand what they did well before the decline, they then focus on their key differentiators, to the exclusion of everything else
  • they identify their core values, and what they expect from their team
  • they believe that anything is possible and set impossible targets
  • they plan relentlessly and execute flawlessly
  • they seek great PR and build a loyal customer following
  • they decide to delight their customers
  • they invest in staff development
    • but do not expect an immediate ROI
    • insist that everyone participate
    • prioritise product knowledge and positioning (everyone is in sales & marketing)
  • they build a flat organisational structure
  • they focus on their people and
    • tell managers to always hire people better than them
    • don’t overpay staff
    • don’t over manage people, let them make mistakes
    • give them development opportunities via
      • performance reviews that mean something and are treated seriously
      • succession plans, multiple people for every position
      • encouraging parallel moves
      • encouraging to leave (to build wider influence)

The above is not an exhaustive list and much could be written about all of the individual bullet points. You may look at the points raised and think that they are over simplistic and not worthy of further discussion, but in my experience success comes from getting the small things right. It’s not rocket science, there is no magical success secret. It’s about vision, clarity, execution, and the right people in the right jobs doing the right things.

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