Fail Forward into Success

Creating positive framework around failure is the key to success.


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In business and in life, failure is going to occur. It’s inevitable and it’s necessary. It is where the largest amounts of growth, learning and personal development occur. Each of us will handle failing in business differently, based upon how we view failure.

Do you interpret the Webster’s Dictionary definition of failure as “failing to perform a duty or expected action or a lack of success?”

Or you may like a more positive definition of failure, such as the one subscribed to by former prime minister of England during World War II, Winston Churchill, who believed, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

In order to execute the Churchill definition, the business owner or manager must become a business leader. He or she must have an increased sense of awareness around the idea of failure and what it means to him or her.

The solution is to not use failing as a barrier to success. Instead, use failure as a catalyst for success. Successful entrepreneurs and business leaders do not see failure as a win or lose scenario.

Instead, they create a positive framework around it. They recognize the pattern and what is not working; set an intention (not an expectation) of what they would like to do differently; create a strategy to break the pattern; then they take action; and they get feedback on how they did. This can come from employees, clients, Wall Street, and so on. This helps them to continue to stay along the path of success, as Churchill would say, without a loss of enthusiasm.

One of the most famous fail-forward into success stories is that of Harland Sanders, better known to lovers of fried chicken as Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Colonel Sanders, after the age of 65, had to reinvent his definition of success.

At the time, he had one restaurant, in North Corbin, Kentucky, which was located on a main road, bringing him plenty of traffic from hungry travelers. However, because of the construction of Interstate 75, the restaurant experienced a reduction in customers and revenue. As a result, he sold it.

He took the one asset he had—his mother’s chicken recipe—and set out across the country to try to sell the recipe. He went from one diner to the next, cooking the recipe for restaurant owners, making just enough to continue his sales journey. He lived off of his meager savings and $105 per month from social security.

He was so determined that he slept in the back of his car and found great pleasure in teaching potential customers how to make his recipe using his unique techniques. However, he was struggling to make his first sale. He needed to reframe his failure.

First, he recognized the pattern of what was not working. He realized that frying the chicken didn’t differentiate him enough in the eyes of restaurant owners, so he began pressure cooking the chicken, which allowed the food to be processed quicker, with a unique flavor.

Then, he set an intention (not an expectation) of what he would like to do differently. He focused on creating a sustainable business income stream that was not dependent on one location. He sought to receive 4 cents from every chicken sold, creating recurring revenue.

He created a strategy to break the pattern and then take action. He took to the road and demonstrated the process, cooking the chicken himself.

He then received feedback on how he did. He, and his recipe, were rejected 1,009 times. Talk about a lot of feedback!

In 1952, the “Kentucky Fried Chicken” recipe was franchised for the first time in Salt Lake City, Utah. Ten years later, the Colonel experienced significant success and the company soon grew to more than 600 franchised outlets. At 73, Mr. Sanders sold KFC to investors for $2 million (which is more than $15 million today). He became a salaried brand spokesman.

Today, KFC is the world’s fourth largest restaurant chain, with more than 20,000 locations across the globe. And Colonel Sanders is still its logo.

Mr. Sanders failed forward 1,009 times into success to build a global brand.

Being a business leader is not an “Everyone gets a trophy” world. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always make you happy. Some days you win, some days you lose. However, if approached correctly, it can be hugely satisfying.