The value of failure

One of the most important lessons from Charlene Li’s book Open Leadership — and one that I failed (so to speak) to address in last Friday’s post about the book — is the idea that it’s OK to fail. This is one of the most valuable lessons from the book, and one that risk-averse institutions like colleges and universities ought to embrace.

“Success,” Winston Churchill said, “is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Li quotes Churchill in her chapter on the value of failure (Chapter 9, “The Failure Imperative”), and points out that “by mastering failure, [leaders] create an environment in which risk taking is encouraged and recovery from failure becomes a skill that everyone in the organization possesses.”

Li then poses a question that is key for higher education:

In your organization, how important is it for people to be risk takers, to be innovators? If initiative and innovation are key to your future success, then you need to take a long hard look at how you personally create trust and approach failure, because it will be reflected back in the culture that you create.

Colleges and universities tend to be mainly conservative, cautious institutions. Not many of our leaders got to where they are by taking huge risks in their careers. And so, the culture that rewards a cautious approach is not likely to reward risk takers — especially if they fail.

So where does that leave us who fall in the middle of the org charts and who aspire to be the open leaders Li talks about? I think it leaves us to take risks and give those who report to us as many opportunities to take risks as we can. We should not discourage risk-taking simply because we are in a culture that rewards caution. Moreover, we should learn to practice the art of forgiveness. To those in our organizations who take risks and fail, we should ask: “What did you (we) learn? How can this help us in the future?”

We should also take a cue from Google, which has a motto — “Fail fast, fail smart” — that would be a nice one to adopt in higher ed.

Li writes about one spectacular failure at Google in which one VP’s error cost the company millions of dollars. When the VP told Google co-founder Larry Page about the costly mistake, Li recounts, Page told her: “I’m so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much — not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk.”

When was the last time you heard an administrator in higher ed say something like that? Perhaps soon, we’ll hear more of that kind of talk amid the halls of the academy.

Let’s make it happen. Let’s follow Google’s motto to “Fail fast, fail smart.” That would be a win.

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

10 thoughts on “The value of failure”

  1. Your post made me think about the way organizations (companies and institutions) hire external people for these middle-management positions.

    They never take any risks – just looking for people who did the exact same job – on paper that is – in the exact same kind of organizations without not too much consideration for individual expertise or achievement. I think real risk taking starts there.

  2. I couldnt agree more, great article! I think that colleges need to be run more like a business and more emphasis needs to be placed on marketing!

    I sincerely think that if schools were run more like a business, schools would be in a lot better shape!

    If you would like to know more about higher education and business marketing, please see:


  3. Amen. Clay Shirky points out that organizations focus on reducing the likelihood of failure, when they would be benefit more from reducing the cost of failure. For example, not all risks need to be large (and potentially fatal) to the organization.

    Karine’s point is very important as well. I often to refer to the quote from the museum curator who was told (by a Board member) that he seemed awfully young and inexperienced to have such an important position. The curator (A. Hyatt Mayor) replied:

    “I wasn’t hired for what I know. I was hired for what I can find out.”

    Universities hire administrators for what they already know how to do, not for what they can discover, invent or imagine. What a lost opportunity, in my opinion.

  4. Great post. I’d even go so far as to say all failures are successes because they show you what you didn’t know before. They led you to a conclusion that was previously unknown. Now, you can move in the ‘right’ direction with a reason instead of just an educated – calculated – guess.

    I’m very lucky that my VP is a risk taker. Projects can get off the ground immediately, new options tried. So long as you have the information on why its needed any why something else cannot do what this can, you’re free to explore. I’d not trade that for the world.


  5. Your line about learning the art of forgiveness reminds me a phrase I’ve heard often, usually in regards to web updates “Do first, ask for forgiveness later.” If you’re scared to mess up, there’s a lot of great projects that will never get off the ground. It sounds like Google just accepts that failure as a risk of doing business. They win, in the end, because it gives them the freedom to innovate before the business model changes.

    Jess has a great point as well – what you learn from failing can be just as important as what you would have gained by succeeding. It’s great market research, even if it doesn’t turn out the way you planned.

  6. Thanks for all the good comments and perspectives. As someone who has a tendency to be somewhat conservative and cautious (hey, I’ve been in higher ed for almost 20 years now), I probably need to be even more vigilant than some in remembering that taking risks is okay.

    Karine – I’m a big believer in bringing people up through the organization rather than from the outside, and try to do so as opportunities permit. To use the baseball analogy, this is the “farm team system” rather than the “free agents.”

    Andy – Great quote from that curator. Thanks for sharing it!

    Jess – You’re fortunate to work for a VP who encourages risk taking, and your VP is fortunate that you recognize and appreciate that quality.

    Amanda – I’ve heard a similar mantra: “It’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.” And I tend to follow it.

  7. Good stuff… Your point reminds me of a book I read recently – “Transforming a College” about the rise of Elon University in recent decades. In my humble opinion, Elon’s willingness to take risks was the single most important factor in the university’s ascent.

    During this time of unprecedented challenges (and opportunities) for higher ed, I would much rather put my eggs in the basket of an institution that follows the Google motto.

  8. Thank you for sharing us an inspirational story. I like the concept of success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm. People who never give up are the true successful person. Learning from our mistake is the best lesson we can learn.

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