Failing to fail

The old proverb “If at first you don’t succeed try, try again” … should actually read “If at first you don’t succeed FAIL, FAIL again”.  Life has taught me –  true path to success is strewn with failures, multiple attempts, missed calls…all rich learning experiences & events which propel you on the road to success and achievements.


Johnson & Johnson (where I had the privilege to work on Global transformation teams) gave me a lifetime opportunity to be trained by IDEO;  world’s most famous design & innovation company. We were seized with how to design the new  global HR service delivery model for J&J and turned to IDEO to understand how to create human-centered design. We wanted a creative approach to problem solving that starts with people and arrives at new solutions tailored to meet their lives.  Clear advice of IDEO was “rapid prototyping”. Put a stake in the ground based on present understanding; study the impact and change again. We experienced  IDEO’s formula of  success: “Fail often to succeed sooner!!”

Unfortunately, this runs counter to our deep rooted fear of failure. We are brought up on a diet of doing it right first time; ironing out all the glitches before we launch. Failure is a bad word: whether in school or in corporates. Witch hunting and blame fixing becomes the norm whenever there is a failure. This is like trampling on all the clues and evidence on the “crime scene”… and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes!! Actually each and every failure brings in learnings. But rather than analyzing what happened; what went right; how did we go wrong and what do we need to do differently, we tend to get into an over- gear of “burying the body” and obfuscating all the evidence such that even the fabled Hercule Poirot cannot help us!!!


Fortunately, the days of shooting the messenger who brings in the bad news have faded into history with the Roman Emperors who would hear no contrary views. Today companies and bosses are far more open and ready to  take risks. This creates more transparency and openness on one hand; and on the other, better team solutions by leveraging everyone’s inputs and creativity. No gainsaying this is indeed the need of the hour, where no one has all the answers and even if  one does –  we soon experience that given the VUCA world, the problem/challenge has undergone a change;  and so we need to start all over again.

It in this context we must understand James Quincy CEO of Coca-Cola comment in his Strategy Summit in May 2017: “If we are not making mistakes, we are not trying hard enough”. Innovation means experimentation; and experiments mean failures. There is no learning without failing. There can be no success without setbacks.  Truly innovative & efficacious companies know that. So, to be successful – double your failure rate!! And from every failure: analyze and capture learnings. Try again and Fail again. This is the path to resounding success. Which is why NetFlix CEO Reed Hastings laments: ” Our hit ratio is too high. We have to take more risks, to try more crazy things….we should have a higher cancel rate overall”


We have our own classic example of Abdul Kalam’s over riding the computers at Sriharikota at T minus 20 secs of a SLV  blast-off; and seeing the Missile nosedive into the sea – under the watching eyes of the nation and the press. But with the backing of Satish Dhawan they faced the Press and told them that they will learn from the failure and come out successful – which they did within an year.  Recently SHAR-ISRO gave the country a gift that can be best called ‘one of its kind’:ISRO launched India’s 100th satellite along with 30 others, out of which 28 were from different countries!!

It is not rocket science, but sheer common sense, that you improve your odds if you increase the no of tries. In Angel Broking and VC funding there is only 10% chance of success. Pharmaceutical companies have high profile R&D centers with latest equipment and top class scientists working on hundreds of molecules which may lead to one marketable drug in 3/4 years time frame. Movies  is another high risk game; it  is seen that 1.3% of all films earn 80% of Box Office collections. Point being there is no sure fire formula for success: Big Shots are just little shots who kept plugging away till they made it big!!


Seeing it in another way : there are umpteen examples where success bred the “failure trap”.  Companies became over confident and complacent: refused to change with times and their past success was the biggest millstone around their neck . Cases of Nokia; Kodak; and closer home Hindustan Motors; HMT Watches; Bush Radios  are all well documented to prove that past success guarantees nothing in the future. Such companies and their managements get lulled into a false sense of security based on their past; and stop analyzing the causes of success. They fool themselves that success is due to their superior strategy/better product/more intelligent understanding of the market. And since they do not investigate the real causes of success -their failure to ask why- makes their success shortlived. They can break this vicious circle ONLY and ONLY when they face failure and learn from their failures.


Karl Slym who was my MD in General Motors once made all of us on the  management board sweat. He asked each Director if they had achieved their target. Marketing said yes; as did  Manufacturing; ditto Logistics & SC; Technical  like-wise and also Finance &  HR. Then the prophetic hammer : “Gentlemen if each one of you is green on your dashboard; why is GM India red?” There was a story in Fortune 2009, after Alan Mullaly moved from Boeing to Ford he asked people to use a color code for their management reports. Green if all was well; Yellow if it required more scrutiny and Red if there was a problem. All reports which were tabled used to be green; totally frustrating the new CEO. Are we really doing that well in Ford was the question? Till the day one Department Head dared to table a Yellow report. While all other Board members were stunned into silence; Alan’s response was a thumping applause when that report came up for discussion. Thereafter, the reports submitted started becoming more colorful.

It is the Leaders’ role to encourage failure. And to learn from each failure. Of course a pilot or a surgeon does not have the liberty of making mistakes and learning from them. Fedex will attempt a “Perfect Order” in terms of deliveries (right package; right address; right condition) and be perfect in facing the client: but they experiment and improve in all other internal facing functions.  Corporate world will do well to remember the Pixar President’s edict: ” Mistakes are not a necessary evil. They are NO evil at all”. That is why Tatas have a “Dare to Try” award. Trikaya Grey gives out in their Annual conference a “Heroic Failure” award. Even NASA apparently has instituted a “Lean Forward, Fail Smart” award.

Happy failing; happy learning; happy growing: vikas


PS This piece is inspired the research done by my partner and friend Ramchandra Rao for one of our assignments. Gives me a chance to acknowledge his contribution in my intellectual life…

32 Replies to “Failing to fail”

  1. I think the word “failure” is a misnomer in may situations.

    The problem starts with our definition of “success”. When you begin a journey on uncharted waters, you do not know what all obstacles are there on the way. You even do not know the destination in a precise way. And still our corporate culture compels us to define milestones/timelines /resources consumed etc as measures of success.

    The stated goal of Christopher Columbus was to reach India. After weathering all the storms and huge challenges , he reached a totally different place!! Shall we call this is failure?

    While we talk about the ‘virtues’ of failure, I wonder how many companies would have “number of failures “ as an employee’s KRA or KPI? In how many appraisal meetings do we see a positive feedback given to the employee on listening to her failures?

    I think there is a need to distinguish 2 areas in which the failure needs to be treated differently:

    • A failure in a somewhat repetitive assignment, where performance benchmarks are already available a failure is a failure.. a Pilot making an operational mistake cannot be tolerated under the garb of encouraging failures.
    • In a totally new assignment, the likes of which has not been tried in the past , any deviation from the original plan must not be labeled as a failure.. This deviation provides a blue print for future success. E.g developing a new drug for cancer.

    Another important aspect to be kept in mind is the kind of stakes involved in the assignment. If a failure is going to cause a huge catastrophe or take away human lives..such failures cannot be pardoned. Much less encouraged.


  2. Sharad Patil. Two points I wish to add from my own experience. One is fear of failure leading to a definite failure. In one of a tough negotion situation my boss just made a comment on next step saying Sharad are u afraid to fail. Just go ahead and make the offer. On reflection I realised he was right. I made that offer n a three n a half year battle concluded with significant success. Second not trying at all out of fear of failure. Ex. I joined EFI as Secy Gen. It was in a bad shape. Whatever initiatives I suggested my colleagues shot them down. While my back was faced to wall. I tried each one of them and I am happy all were a good success. One of that Vikas u n one more of our colleagues was positive. Rest said cholbe na. The inititive was Executive Comp.Survey. we did it n made a million rs. After all expenses. Vikas I believe every problem has a solution n when u think thru u realise u also have an option to choose from. I can share some more examples but stop here. Many tks for picking up interesting themes for the blog. So far I have enjoyed them all. Bst rgds. Sharad..


  3. “If at first you don’t succeed, fix the blame – quick!!” That’s the prevalent culture that has its roots in fear of failure. It stops companies and individuals from becoming innovative.

    Of course, since learning from failure is a friggin’ expensive way of learning, careful and innovative companies spend more time in checking, cross-checking and double-checking before taking the plunge…and the process of checking is itself a great learning.

    That said, it’s absolutely impossible to succeed without a single failure. And people who are successful at first attempt have some knowledge gaps that they make up for later at an even higher cost….

    Maza aa gaya. Enjoyed the reference to Arun Date though the context of his song was different….Now listening to “Chalo Ik Baar Phir se Ajanbi ban jaye dono”… relevant?


    1. Ravi
      ivalese rop laviyale daari
      tyacha velu gela…..

      You were the one who encouraged me to start this blogging
      and today after 1 year I am still writing
      51 not out
      and enjoying myself
      thank you thank thank you
      point being ajnabi mat bano: keep motivating and keep encouraging me
      Friends Whiskey and Wine improve with age
      and our friendship is evidence…

      If mistakes are not done; I feel half the fun/challenge is gone
      stakes improve and the desire to get to the root and come out successful is doubled when we face challenges
      the same “swad” will not come through the process of checking and rechecking
      and while expensive I think it is a great teacher if you analyze success and analyze failures and learn from them

      today’s organizations spend a lot on Knowledge Management and dissemination of learning
      this is required also because of virtual teams and multi locational bases
      But the joy of muddling through
      being iterative and analytical
      coming suddenly out of the clouds and staring at the solution: all have their own joy

      majja nu life dost

      PS : hope I have not created many enemies for you by publicly acknowledging my debt to you to start me on the path of blogging


  4. Namaskar Vikas Kaka, the subject is very well articulated.

    I like the amendment you made to the statement as “If at first you don’t succeed FAIL, FAIL again”. I would like to add “, until failure fails to success.”

    To read as one sentence “If at first you don’t succeed FAIL, FAIL again, Until Failure Fails to Success.”

    In fact the word failure has ingredients of attempt and assessment of not achieving the success as expected. That means failure implies partial success.

    I believe that the attitude of failing to fail is a suicide and failing to success is a way towards life.

    Sunil Agarkar

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Class Sunil
      aap ne to mere thoughts pe char chand laga diye
      you put it so well ” failure has ingredients of attempt and assessment of not achieving” As long as you asssess what happened you are already primed for future success
      Your last words are indeed THE LAST WORDS on this topic & I quote you ” attitude of failing to fail is a suicide and failing to success is a way towards life”.
      just too good my friend
      thanks for sharing


  5. Wonderfully written sir ! And it’s so much relatable to me. Like always you have got us completely immersed in to reading your article.
    I would like to associate the subject of this article to one of my life stories. I was watching TV at some time in June 2008 ! And surfing through the channels i, out of nowhere, landed up on Star Sports, which was broadcasting Wimbledon and guess who was playing !! Roger Federer ! That was the first time i saw him playing and instantly fell in love with the king. So I followed him through out the Wimbledon and there after i am following him till today. So i decided to quit Badminton, wherein i had already reached district level, and pursue tennis ! Initially we used to play with badminton racquet and Plastic balls. Soon Dad gifted me a tennis racquet and we started playing tennis. Me and my brother started learning from scratch. We knew nothing about tennis. We made mistakes !!!! A lot of mistakes while playing. But that’s how we learnt it ! Today he has reached state level and i have reached district level. Though we don’t play it as a career perspective, it’s our hobby. We are so passionate about it !! And we did it all without a coach. Our couches were our Mistakes, TV and YouTube !
    After hitting 1000 Outs, we managed to make the ball fall in to the court. Through the mistakes, we evolved and improved. We were not afraid of mistakes !! We were afraid of stopping. The difficult single handed backhand is now mastered ! Every mistake gave us insights and made us better, so we went on the court with the attitude of ” let’s play tennis and make some mistakes ”
    That’s really a brief story. I will one day definitely tell you the complete story of these mistakes. It’s a big life teacher. Thanks for bringing me back to those memories. I always love to read your articles!!!
    So, let’s make some mistakes, i believe the Forehead needs some improvement!!! Hahaha 😀


    1. Ashay
      Love the line: Mistakes were our coaches
      What an attitude dear friend
      I love it

      your story is very inspiring
      reaching district & state level in a competitive game like tennis is very creditable
      and to think that you did it on your own is just awesome
      You always perform best when you are not worried about the outcome and you are playing just to entertain and enjoy yourself
      as long as you keep an open mind and experiment with a view as you have put so beautifully” making mistakes and learning ” you can master the most challenging tasks that life can throw at you
      keep the positive approach
      keep learning
      keep failing
      and keep enjoing


  6. Great insights Vikas. In retrospect, I think in my corporate career I was kidding myself by saying I was succeeding and generally showing green like you said. This gives us a false sense of achievement and complacency.So we are all playing the game.

    I think in today’s context where your competition could come from anywhere and not necessarily from your industry, it is all the more important. You can no longer think in terms of existing products and services but in terms of the solution that you are offering and that could come from anywhere.


    1. VJ
      well said
      you open the dimension which many people ignore…just because they are uncomfortable
      but yes today competition is so all emcompassing
      and it can come from any corner
      which is why so many of our colleagues are caught unaware
      in such cases failure catches them by surprise
      but the solution to my mind still lies in analyzing both your failures and successes and charting a new path through the multifarious challenges lying ahead of us
      the challenge of searching for the right approach out of the corporate “bhool-bhulaiyya” is on us and will stay
      continuous learning will be the only savior in the brave new world


    1. Nitin your Edison comment is when he was experimenting to find a filament for the electric bulb: a filament which would glow and not break
      my fav story of Edison is when his lab which had all his life’s earnings burned down before his eyes one summer night
      His response: So happy all my mistakes are burned to the ground….now I can start all over again
      celebrate failure….see the positive in every down turn
      amazingly inspiring


    1. Sunil thanks for your comment.
      what you have wished for should happen naturally as failures keep happening
      and we can easily learn from them.
      unfortunately most time we are trying to hunt for excuses and busy in allocating blame
      the earlier we focus on the learning potential of failures we will create truly vibrant learning organizations


  7. Wow
    100% agree
    Failure is d first step towards success
    Nicely written n worded
    Very inspiring


    1. Mukesh ji
      thanks for your kind words
      I like your line : Failure is the first step towards success
      it indeed is
      we should not shy away from failures
      we must learn to make them center stage

      You say my article is inspiring
      I feel your words and those of other commentators inspire me
      thanks for taking the trouble to read and write in


  8. Failure is the best teacher and also a great inspirer that inspires you to make mistakes learn from them and move on. A good leader is one who has definately seen failure in corporate life. If you have not failed you have not tried anything new in life.


    1. Rupesh agree totally
      show me a man who has not failed and I will show you a man who has not gone beyond his comfort zone; remained safe forever; and thus will have no significant achievements to his credit
      new approaches ; new methods; new directions will come if you are ready to spin and ready to fall
      all progress depends on failures
      and learning from them


  9. So true Sir….we are so conditioned to celebrate our success and hide our failure…we need to train ourselves as well as our leaders to celebrate failures and turn them into a learning…one of your best articles Sir


  10. So true…we are so conditioned to celebrate success and hide our failure…even I feel that we need more leaders who not only accept but celebrate failures and turn them into learnings…one of your best articles Sir


  11. Loved the subject and liked all your personal experiences and examples that you’ve shared in the article. I do believe that failure,through its life-altering lessons makes us better persons (definitely strips down egos and molds us) and makes us more resilient in life.
    When a baby is learning to walk, she falls down several times, but we all know that the baby will walk one day. So, why isn’t failure at other things treated this way?
    We live in a society that tends to celebrate successes rather than focusing on the epic journey towards that success which are filled with trials, tribulations, setbacks and break downs. Its just not fashionable to talk about these things.
    If failure was viewed more in a positive light – as a stepping stone, the world at large would gain more in terms of knowledge, experience etc…and I quote
    Thomas Edison “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.


    1. Deepa
      just wrote a reply to Nitin’s comment which gives my fav Edison story on his manner of seeing all experience as a positive step ahead
      Unfortunately we are brought up to only celebrate success
      Arun Date ( our marathi bhavgeet singer) was studying in school and failed
      he was crying; his mother was embarrased
      His father got sweets and distributed to all friends as Arun had failed…!!!!
      He complimented Arun on his singing skills and said become a good singer
      Arun went on to become an engineer
      and also a legendary singer
      the story says it all
      I will end with one of my fav Arun Date songs
      “Lakh chuka asatil kelya
      Keli pun preeti….”

      my learning….love all that you do
      love yourself
      success and failure are just lables
      love all lables


  12. Yes, I always felt lucky and happy with my successes in childhood and youth – but if I would have failed, and failed again in the first 25-28 years of my life, it would prepared me much better for the initial years as an entrepreneur!


    1. Praj
      it is never to late to start
      Main point is take risks
      go beyond your comfort zone
      as Jeff Bez os has put it so beautifully
      ” If you are going to take bold bets, they will be experiments. Experiments by their very nature are prone to failures.But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that did not work”
      sound advice from world’s biggest entrepreneur

      Increase your failure rate
      fail to succeed
      you will be happier


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