Embrace Risk and Fail Forward

All failure is not created equal.  Failure is limited to defeat when we don’t walk away from it having learned something that we didn’t know before or if we didn’t try again.

If you don’t succeed the first time, don’t try harder the next time, try smarter.

Organizations must create cultures that embrace risk, grow as a result of failure, and scale success, if they want to create sustainable growth.  Here’s how.

Minimize the Effect of Failure and Scale Success

At SEI we begin small so that the effects of failure are minimal and then we scale for success.

As an example, after developing an online “portal” to meet a customer’s need, we invited a handful of additional customers to test the portal with us prior to a large-scale launch.  With their input we were able to better identify what worked and what didn’t.  Had we launched the portal to all our customers it would have been a frustrating experience for them and for us as we worked out the bugs.

Starting small minimizes the effects of failure, and just as important, it takes pressure off of our employees to try to be perfect the first time.  They have license to innovate, develop solutions, and refine their work.

How to Fail Forward

Failure happens.  When it does we must be intentional about leveraging it for growth.  We can do that by reexamining, reengineering and redeploying.

Reexamine (Look back)

Conduct a post-mortem.  At SEI we’re big on performance measurement.  We try to make sure that there is planning for everything that we do and that there’s a way to measure success and failure.  We cannot effectively adjust if we don’t benchmark and measure.  We identify process failures based on objective data, not on emotion.

Reengineer (Look forward)

Based on the post-mortem, make adjustments.  Change those things that didn’t work well and keep those that did.

Sometimes failure means that it wasn’t meant to be, and that’s ok.  We don’t always know this without trying.  I’ve found that many small “dead-ends” often lead to great success.


Too often people develop an unreasonable fear of failure and have trouble trying again.  Trying something new is difficult to do when a culture doesn’t encourage risk and embrace failure.

Almost every success we’ve experienced at SEI was born from failure.

Those who succeed learn from the experiences of failure and engineer a smarter way.

Failure and Success are Synonymous

There’s a line in the movie Rocky that’s applicable to those of us in business. “It isn’t about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving.”

Almost every great success in history was preceded by failure.  In each case, individuals were presented with a choice, sometimes thousands of times, to accept failure or to learn from it.

Henry Ford failed five times and went bankrupt before developing a new process- the assembly line, which became a benchmark for Ford Motor’s success.

Thomas Edison created over 1,000 different iterations of the light bulb before he finally succeeded in making one that worked.

In order to make history, leaders must intentionally create cultures that encourage risk, embrace failure and scale success.



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  • Denise Corcoran

    Hi Ron,

    I really enjoyed the article and your concept of “failing forward.” I completely agree with you about the importance of minimizing risk. And there is always a way to minimize risk.

    There was a phrase you wrote under the “Re-examine” section — “that there’s a way to measure success and failure.” — that stimulated my thinking and some questions to you. I could be reading into that comment more than you intended. I would love to hear your thoughts regardless.

    Do you actually come up with an actual cutoff point or # that tells you when you have been successful or when you have failed?

    When you say you measure success and failure, first, can you give an example of how you came up with your measurements that puts a certain level of performance in the success category vs. failure?

    Do you measure success vs. failure mainly for quantitative areas of performance or do you ever apply to more qualitative areas — like company culture and values?

    You gave me “food for thought” for my work with leaders. I look forward to your responses and again, thank you for the great article.