How to fail (wisely)

March 5, 2015, 5:34 PM UTC
David DeWolf, president and CEO of 3Pillar Global

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What’s the best mistake you ever made?” is written by David DeWolf, CEO and President of 3Pillar Global.

Yes, it’s possible to succeed without failure. Some folks possess natural intuition that breeds success. Others either get lucky or they are in the right place at the right time. But sustaining a track record of success is nearly impossible without taking smart risks and learning from ideas that fail.

In 2008, 3Pillar, the software product innovation and development services company that I founded in 2006, was just starting to build momentum. I had been fortunate – my deep knowledge and natural passion for product innovation combined with a void in the market to fuel the growth of a company I never intended to start, inspired me get the business off the ground.

Leveraging the advice that we often gave to others, we launched a series of products. We began to hire dedicated staff and used the proceeds of our services business to fuel product development.

And then it happened. The services business began to suffer. Our lack of attention sabotaged our core business. Our resources were being divided between two causes. Our business development began to suffer.

After investing significant resources in this new effort, we were forced to make a decision. It became apparent that it would be nearly impossible to “ride two horses.” Were we willing to disrupt our core business and pivot the company or would we stick with our original strategy?

Ultimately, we shut this new division down. But I’d consider this adventure anything but a failure. A smart failure, yes. A total failure, no.

Failures turn smart when you take the time to digest lessons and turn them into fuel for your business. I ask myself the following questions every time I “fail.”

What’s the biggest lesson?

In this instance, I learned that focus is a critical component of business success and that focus was more about saying ‘no’ to things that might distract you.

What good came out of my failure?

Our ]failures taught us several things about innovation and product development that we applied to our business. It also taught us that true product innovators are passionate about building products and highlighting this aspect of who we were helped us to recruit top-notch talent.

How do I keep lessons learned?

In order to maintain the benefits of our smart failures, we adopted our processes and messaging to leverage our learning. Those lessons are still embedded in how we execute and how we message to this day. And we’re a better company for it.

Ultimately, by asking these questions and analyzing our “failure,” the company grew from 15 employees at that time to over 600 today. The focus we possess as a business, and the lessons that we learned fueled our growth and we’re still reaping the rewards.

I have applied this process in many situations, and continue to do so. The lesson not only improved our business, it taught me how to deal with failure.

The ability to take risks and turn mistakes into smart failures is a key competitive differentiator for businesses and leaders. It is especially relevant in today’s digital economy, where failure is cheap and innovation comes at a premium. Start embracing failure. Start turning your experiences into lessons learned, or fuel, for your future success.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What’s the best mistake you ever made?

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