Growing from failure

1 Menno van Dijk
March 7th, 2018
Article by: Valeria Mecozzi, Menno van Dijk
Growing from failure

The life of creative leaders is built on taking risks. Entrepreneurship is to be bold, and to be the one that stands and heads toward a new initiative.


The work that goes into turning an idea into tangible business is humbling for anyone, even the most brave-hearted. Every step asks you to raise the bar – and the stakes – to new, dizzying heights. Leaders know how to bring their team to the brink through embodying the mission, and guide the way for those who believe the values and vision are true and right.


The higher we reach, the deeper the fall. What happens when you get it wrong? Sometimes, it goes spectacularly wrong. We all know how disruptive the experience of failure can be: that moment where it all comes to a stop, the towel is thrown, and everything is different. These are profound personal moments that can become torments when they are mishandled.


The difference lies in how to fail: what one person sees as a debilitating disappointment another will turn into an opportunity. Engineering the fail will allow you to master the passionate nature of creative leadership.

Failure belongs to creative leaders

The first of the opposing forces is to know that there are two ends in the spectrum in a failure: the first is composed of the group that fail to pursue their dreams, choosing to live a life without the attempt. The other group is made up of those few who fail in their pursuits and endeavors: artists, athletes, creative leaders, explorers, and heroes. They are joined by a desire to move toward new possibilities and create and achieve something that will leave this earth better than when they entered it.

Committing to solving a large societal challenge stimulates the hunt for an innovative endeavor. What seems too scary to attempt? We need bolder leaders that bring commitment, ingenuity and entrepreneurial courage. The mission and the vision for a better future guide the leader and the team to experiment new ways that haven’t been tried before.

The concept of “the future” has worked one as the greatest sources of inspiration and fear for humankind. Creative leaders know that this is the space for new attempts to happen. The word itself, rischio, was used by 17th century sailing trading merchants to mean the promise of potential gains. This is what makes creative leadership so much like failing toward success. What could be worse than not trying because you are afraid of not knowing the outcome, or worse, thinking that you do?

1. Define the fail

Before executing the plan, gather your team around a table and explain the project’s activities and objectives. Go into great detail, and then have them imagine it is one month later and the project has totally failed. This exercise is called the PRE-MORTEM. Give everyone a few minutes to absorb the information and write on paper what they believe sunk the plan. A moment for isolated thinking reduces the chance of correlated error, whereby the first person to answer influences the following responses. Everyone is given room to speak without interfering, so consider recording the session. Let the team know they are at the table for a reason, and give them space for honesty. As the leader, each feedback must be thoughtfully considered and dissected in a second moment.

There are many ways to describe failure in our vocabulary: “aim for the stars”, “push to the edge”, trail and error, prototypes and experiments are all alternatives to saying you didn’t hit the intended target. To minimize the impact, lawyer and entrepreneur Roberto Menescal told us how he guides his team toward high risk endeavors. “We have clear-cut definitions of what will determine failure. What does it mean to fail, and when should we abandon the ship?” They use a three-branched failure criteria: a certain date; a clear budget; and any instance after which the goal is inevitably altered by other forces.

Once you have filtered the feedback from your exercise, PRUNE the activities that distract you from where you need to go and complicate matters, as these become dead weights. Strip away the inessential. What will be left are the things that matter the most and the things that distill your vision. When that clicks into place, you notice that the list of risks and reasons for failure dwindle.

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“When I’m designing clothing, I try to stretch the boundaries or the perception of boundaries that we give ourselves. 


I speak to the technicians, and they say, ’99.99 percent, it’s going to fail.’ I imagine a technique or material that doesn’t exist yet. Sometimes it works, and most of the time it doesn’t.” 

2. Engineer the fail

Iris van Herpen is a Dutch designer who fuses technology and 3D printing with traditional craftsmanship. Considered to be a pioneer in her field, she laughs when she talks about her team’s response to her ideas: “99.99% it isn’t going to work.” She loves to push technology beyond its accepted limits: “I imagine a technique or material that doesn’t exist yet. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

To innovate a product and solution by building on a “no” tests the limits of personal involvement. Failure, after all, is an event, not a person. The embodiment of this training is to force oneself to extract a learning and building block from each interaction. From here REFLECTION becomes an essential element of growing from failure. What valuable insights will you extract? The result should be an enriched and deepened understanding of the governing principles of your endeavor and leadership flaws. You will not just move on but improve your ways as a result. Deliberate learning generates profound improvement. Everyone has weaknesses, and they are generally revealed in the patterns of failures they produce. Write down errors and connect the dots between them.

If you want to evolve you need to go toward the problems and expose the points of pain. Buried underneath them you will find the animal instinct, the one that decides flight or fight. Calm yourself and reflect instead. The pain you feel is caused by things in conflict – maybe you have come up against a terrible truth and are unable to accept it; maybe you have been forced to acknowledge a weakness that challenges the idea you had of yourself. True reflection lights the way toward a resolution. Ask yourself, If we had made a different decision would we have achieved a better outcome?

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Everybody fails. The difference lies in HOW you fail: what one person sees as a debilitating disappointment another will turn into an opportunity. #failure #failforward Click To Tweet

Everything is a learning curve. How we behave toward improvement is an important part of the company culture and behavior. COMMUNICATE the new reality to those around you, and you might be surprised at the support that emerges(“Mr Toilet”). Your employees and employers, board members, peers and partners will come through you when things go awry. Openness encourages authenticity, which continues the cycle of maturity. For leaders, the team’s attempts must be celebrated when they succeed as well as when they fail. Let everyone know they are encouraged and supported to take risks. Jack Sim (“Mr Toilet”) told us that at the end of it all, we must remember that what we are doing is like farming. Each attempt must be thought of as a potato – some won’t survive the season, but the field will feed the village.


Header image source: Matt Slocum, Associated Press

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