· 3 min read · Features

How failure drives success


Remember the mantra “right first time”? Philip Crosby was the man behind the philosophy of “zero defects”, a phrase popularised in his 1979 book Quality is Free.

The logic of his argument is eminently clear since where there are zero defects, there are no costs associated with issues of poor quality. Hence, quality becomes free. Which organisation would not find this a compelling offer?

You can imagine that the philosophy of “right first time” would lead organisations to take a dim view of those who make mistakes or are not on the ‘A list’, and punitive measures may follow failure. Organisations who think like this may be making a grave error.

There is a school of thought that says that success and failure are closely intertwined and that success often follows a period of failure.

Consider Samuel Smiles, for example, an Edinburgh-educated surgeon and government reformer, most well-known for his book Self-Help which brought him overnight celebrity status. This book was written in 1859 and two years earlier, in his biography of George and Robert Stephenson, he wrote: "We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”

This view is the polar opposite of Crosby’s and was born, in some way, from Smiles' upbringing of the Calvinist Lowlands and a belief that life was not merely best understood but also best experienced, as a struggle. Difficulties, he thought, were there to weed out the weak and build what he called “pushing character”. George Stephenson’s concept of ‘perseverance’ is one he held in high esteem and he added it to the title of the second edition of Self-Help.

Fast forward to 2012, and Katherine Grainger CBE won the Olympic gold medal for rowing in the double sculls. Born in Glasgow, Katherine studied law at the University of Edinburgh and joined its rowing club on a whim in 1993. She worked hard but after failing to make it on to the university’s rowing team made a life-changing decision never again to experience this level of failure. She made such good progress that she was awarded the Eva Bailey Trophy as the university’s most outstanding female athlete and her iron determination allowed her to reach gold after a series of three silver medals at the Olympics.

Katherine Grainger has a PhD in homicide from King’s College London and will be receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Buckinghamshire New University on Wednesday 10 September. Her message is a vital reminder that success often follows failure and organisations need to build an understanding of this into their systems. To quote Edison: “I have not failed to invent the electric light. I have successfully tested ten thousand variations which did not work.”  

Richard Branson, the only entrepreneur to have created eight separate billion dollar companies, talks in similar terms. “Every business involves risks,” he says. “Success rarely comes from playing it safe. You may fail but there's no such thing as a total failure.” This is why he never gives anyone a 100% perfect review of their work. He believes that no matter how “brilliantly conceived” something is, there is always room for improvement.

History is full of examples of those who have overcome failure to achieve success. Fred Astaire, for example, famously failed his first screen test for MGM after the testing director noted: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” Fortunately, he rose above the criticism and the rest is history.

Michael Crichton, likewise, best-selling author of Jurassic Park whose books have sold over 200 million copies, started off at Harvard studying literature, always intending to become an author. One of his professors persisted in giving him low marks (as a test Crichton submitted a text by Orwell, which was returned with a B-). His issues with the English department led him to switch to medicine and he published his novels under a pen name after qualifying. This was a long, circuitous route to fulfilling his literary ambitions.

Lessons for organisations? It is vital to recruit the right staff and provide them with strong support and talent systems. In that way, people can fulfil their potential no matter what problems are encountered on the way. 

Gloria Moss is professor of management and marketing at Buckinghamshire New University