Response to failure the key to success

Innovation is often associated with creativity, but that is only a small part of it

Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn uses the story of Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's failed expedition to cross Antarctica to teach her MBA students about success.

His 1914-16 attempt at the seemingly impossible went disastrously wrong when his ship, the Endurance, got trapped in ice. The objective for Shackleton shifted from adventure and personal glory to guaranteeing a safe return home for himself and his crew.

Why would anyone use such an epic disaster as an example for those hoping to understand what it takes to succeed in life?

It’s a huge failure from an exploration perspective. But the fact that Shackleton succeeded in bringing his 27-strong team home demonstrates his ability to adapt to an ugly situation and redirect focus.


Innovation is frequently associated with creativity. That spark of ingenuity which leads to something great. That is only a small part of it. Innovation might begin with a lightbulb moment, but the true essence of a good idea lies in the tenacity, determination and grit of those who pursue it to its end.


People come up with creative solutions all the time. But only innovators realise them. Very often that means accepting failures, refusals, delays, adaptations and, dare I say it, even compromise.

It is a question of attitude. Half-empty, half-full and all that. Granted this is the same argument proposed in a million self-help books filled with cliches about the relationship between failure and opportunity. Learn from your mistakes and move on.

Easier said than done. Failing is frowned upon and feels humiliating. Or at least that’s how we’ve been taught to feel. Greatest innovations But some are more resilient than others. Many scientists understand failure better than most. Some spend their entire careers getting things wrong. Failure is an essential ingredient of the scientific method.

Experimentation could also be characterised as routine failure. Researchers test a hypothesis they put forward over and over, making minute changes to the controlled sample in the expectation that some new outcome might emerge. Once they stumble upon a failure they’re happy with, it’s called a result. Or even a success. This approach has been at the heart of some of the greatest innovations of our time – the microwave oven, the internet, even Viagra. While searching for one thing you end up discovering something wholly different, and better. (Nobody needs to know that was not what you were looking for in the first place.)

Entrepreneurs would be wise to adopt a similar approach. Every new product or service has to evolve according to market demand, not the other way around. We might put innovators like Steve Jobs on pedestals for creating revolutionary products on his own terms that the public felt compelled to line up for. The reality is the Apple phenomenon was based on the company's ability to design with the end user in mind. Had it been any other way, Steve would have been jobless.

Which shouldn’t come as much surprise. According to some research, more than 80 per cent of start-ups will fail within the first five years.


In the world of business there’s a whole other lexicon for describing it: bankrupt, broken, deadbeat, down and out, bad risk, loafer, small fry, flop, has-been, ruined. In the same way the Inuit have 50 words for snow, so too does the business world require numerous monikers for a phenomenon so widespread.

Failure is central to the manner in which markets create sophisticated, wealthy economies. Ten per cent of US companies disappear every year. As author Tim Harford put it: "What is striking about the market system is not how few failures there are, but how ubiquitous failure is even in the most vibrant growth industries."

This is not just about getting products to market. The Silicon Valley tenet, “fail fast, fail early, fail often” could be applied to any situation. The phrase refers to one’s appreciation for the value of negative results, so long as they are low-cost and non-catastrophic.

Of course, cost and catastrophe are relative. How one responds, however, is not. Shackleton royally screwed up his 1914-16 expedition to cross the Antarctic. It could have broken him and in turn wiped out his crew. Instead, he kept his nerve and redirected his efforts into protecting his men. No doubt he would have preferred to be remembered as the guy who crossed the Antarctic. But this was still a tremendous success.