Failure is an orphan

“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”

– John F. Kennedy

If you’ve been on the receiving end of consulting firm or marketing agency pitches, perhaps you’ve noticed multiple firms taking credit for the same work.

Or maybe you’ve been part of an event celebrating the launch of an exciting new venture and witnessed how suddenly everybody wants to participate or to extol their contribution.

My personal favorite is the CMO who relentlessly bashed a new business idea we had, did absolutely no work on the project and then showed up uninvited to our press party–which was in a different city than our headquarters–and managed to insert himself in between our CEO and the head of our new venture just as the press started snapping pictures.  And there he was the next day on the front page of Women’s Wear Daily and Ad Age beaming.

Of course when something fails, everyone scuttles like cockroaches when the lights come on. And it’s not too hard to find someone to tell you that they knew what a stupid idea it was all along.

But when was the last time you celebrated a noble failure?

When was the last time someone in your organization got promoted or received a bonus because they were willing to take a smart risk, rather than sitting back until it became obvious or completely safe to act.

When when the last time a Board fired a CEO for moving too slowly or for not doing enough experimenting?

Yes, there are plenty of ill-conceived ventures that should not have seen the light of day or should have been approached in a fundamentally different way.

But I’d wager there are far more projects that should have been started, but weren’t because individuals or organizations were too afraid of failure.

Without the risk of failure there is no innovation. And without innovation you and your company are likely toast.

In reality failure needs more friends, more cousins, more Godfathers, more parents.

It’s time to adopt failure, not shun it.



4 thoughts on “Failure is an orphan

  1. Interesting post. Another place where company politics can often prevent the learning that moves us forward. I’ve always felt that politics also prevent too many marketers from taking the first step toward innovation…by admitting “I don’t know the answer”. Because when we face an important problem and are honest about our need to seek for answers, it’s amazing the innovative solutions that come up. But if we attempt to bluster our way through because claiming to know the answer makes our execs happier, then we are doomed to miss the most valuable solutions.



  2. Brilliant, Steve!

    So, let’s follow this exciting idea upstream to the launch of any ill-fated failure and ask, “What if the dual goal of every project was to create winning products/services AND to LEARN?” How might we treat failures then? Projects not as destinations, but ongoing learning.

    Let’s get even crazier and ask, “what if there was an ingenious and profitable way to incent this learning aspect of failure?” I.e., put some process around harvesting the ‘aha’s’ of failure and redeploying that learning for further development. In that space you might find fledgling flashes of initiative, insight, and innovation. You might even re-wire the fundamental architecture of failure – paralyzing shame – to that of engaged curiosity, where employees want to learn and try new things.


  3. even if failure is an orphan at least it is legitimate. success is a bastard thing if it has so many fathers. all this going along with what your obnoxious boss says just cause you want a big fat pay check by the end of the month is such hypocrisy. better to start some enterprise on your own like writing a book or a business. so what if it fails. i say our failures are stepping stones to success. only by facing our erroneous zones so we end up right on track. not by kowtowing to authority or licking the boots of power. that sort of life, be it ten times as successful, is not worth it.

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