Whether we like it or not, life doesn’t always go the way we planned it. The same is true in business. While most entrepreneurs accept the fact that the journey to success may be a bit bumpy along the way, that same acceptance is harder to maintain when the cause of the turbulence is a personal mistake. Still, it’s those very mistakes (and our response to them) that can make all the difference between the success and failure of even the most promising business venture.
Why Making Mistakes in Business Are a Good Thing
On the surface, it would seem that making mistakes is something to avoid at all costs. But, the reality is most of the setbacks and failures that occur within a business are a goldmine of valuable information and experiences. When they are handled properly (more on this below), mistakes can help business owners and managers discover stopgaps, wastage, and wrong assumptions so they can refocus and realign their priorities and their resources, and ultimately streamline operations. Failure also can lead to personal growth and learning, and it is a vital part of innovation and experimentation.
In short, it’s all a matter of perspective. Smart entrepreneurs expect that there will be some unavoidable failures ahead. But instead of running away from them, they embrace them and turn them into valuable learning opportunities.
Here is an example:
In the late 1990s, Christopher Gergen, co-founded an online tutoring platform for high school and college students called Smarthinking.com. Everything was looking good in the beginning of 2000. The company was experiencing rapid growth and had the backing of investors. But then the dot com bubble burst. Shaken investors pulled out their financing, leaving Gergen and his partner with practically no money to work with. They had failed to foresee the impending collapse of the market and were cuaght unprepared.
Instead of ignoring the problem, the two founders brought their whole staff together and explained exactly what needed to happen to save the company. They skimped and saved for a half a year and were eventually able to raise a $5 million round of financing.
That experience ultimately helped the business to take a much more disciplined approach to their cash flow management, and unlike many of the tech companies of that time, Smartthinking.com still exists today and has survived even the recent recession.
How to Turn Mistakes into Opportunities
In tech oriented circles these days, failure is actually embraced; it’s almost become a badge of honor and a sign that success will come later on. The result is that entrepreneurs looking for outside investors assume that prior failures are a plus in their favor. They make mistakes and just as quickly move on from them.
This attitude may sound more positive, but it is deceptively so. Not all failures are created equal. The kinds of failures that make an entrepreneur more likely to receive the support and backing of outside investors and the ones that will truly lead to future success are the ones that show smart decision-making, a rational approach to solving a problem, as well as real learning and growth. These factors are themselves the indications that success may well be on its way.
But, how do you get to this place in your business- especially if you’ve made some big blunders?
Here are a few points to keep in mind:
Start with acceptance. Being in the wrong does not mean you are weak or bad; it just means you are human. Once you can get that into your head, it becomes much easier to be transparent, honest, and to take personal responsibility for the error. The worst thing you can do is to try to pin the blame others- even if there were other people involved. Also, in situations where someone was hurt, make the effort to make amends.
Feedback is key. Realize that by nature it will be hard to look objectively at your failure. The urge to either gloss over the mistake or overreact to it is extremely difficult to overcome. For that reason you need an outside perspective.
Do not ignore and actively seek out critical feedback- from mentors, customers, employees, peers, and partners. Successful entrepreneurs assume some adaptation and change will be required, so they actively seek feedback, spot failures and fix them early. They avoid the instinctive reaction of denial, or the stubbornness of charging straight ahead despite evidence that a strategy is not working.
But a caveat: not all feedback is created equal. Even though it’s important to seek out the advice of others, you at the same time need to sift out the golden nuggets of suggestions, advice, and even complaints while throwing out or just putting on the side, the ideas that are not currently applicable.
Look failure in the face. Listen to feedback, and then have the courage to explore the root cause of the mistake. What was in your control to change, and what factors were outside of it? Define the mistake in a non-defensive way so that everyone involved can better understand what happened and how to avoid it in the future.
By going through this process, you are more likely to end up fixing the real problem, and not just a symptom.
Look for the silver lining. Now it’s time to reframe the whole situation. Determine not only what went wrong, but also what went right and how you can learn from the experience. chart your own path. New paths are the key to success for an entrepreneur, but unless you listen and do your homework, you will be unable to recognize the old proven paths to perdition.
Take action. The last step to this process is to implement change based on what you learned from the experience. Your goal is to not only try to rectify the problem, but to get things back on track. Failures should result in better processes and better documentation, or they will become mistakes repeated. Moreover, the process of change needs to be implemented quickly before negative and hard to change assumptions get in the way of progress.
The key take away to all of this is that failure is very much a matter of perspective. Mistakes happen. They’re an unavoidable part of life, but failure is in the eye of the beholder. To the extent that you can turn a blunder- even a major one- into a learning experience that forever changes the way you do things- both now and in the future- then the truth is there was no real failure after all. Instead, it becomes just another opportunity for success down the road.