Book Talk: Celebrating Failure

Lessons on Learning from Taking Risks and Making Mistakes

In an ideal world, everything I touch would turn to gold and my business would run perpetually like a well-oiled machine. And I’d be on a beach somewhere with an iPad, a smartphone, and a drink. But utopia is nowhere—literally—and we learn nothing when everything is going great.

Rather, we learn from our failures. The stuff that goes wrong and makes for business case studies and lessons learned, and adjustments, innovation, and change.

Ralph Heath’s Celebrating Failure is about embracing our mistakes and using them as teachable moments to make us smarter leaders, business owners, and entrepreneurs. The book is broken out into 30 short chapters, each with a story, a learning moment, and some actionable takeaways.

What I like about the book is that Heath isn’t handwringing over what’s gone wrong. Rather, he’s pulled examples from his career building a successful ad agency to reflect on  what he’s learned by “taking risks, making mistakes, and thinking big.” Some examples:

  • On pitching new business, Heath explains that his firm once lost out on a project because “we simply failed to step up and answer the question as succinctly as we should have.” The remedy: answer the question (and provide supporting information later), be prepared, and draw on your experience. Heath writes that “as a leader, it’s my responsibility to prove to the people gutsy enough to stick their necks out and provide direct answers that the company will support their answers—even when those answers turn out to be wrong.”
  • On owning your mistakes, Heath makes pointing out his mistakes a part of his business philosophy. He writes that “I encourage people with whom I work to take risks, and publicly attempt to reward risk-takers, especially when they fail. It is essential to be free of the fear of making mistakes.”
  • On continuous improvement, Heath talks about celebrating successes and then pivoting to assess what you could do better next time.  He notes that “the desire to continuously improve is not a negative reflection of the initial effort. It is, for example, just good business sense to take a triumphant moment and make it serve multiple purposes.”
  • On investing in people, he uses the example of the time he brought in a consultant to help home the staff’s presentation skills. “When, for $15,000, you can greatly improve the way people perform their jobs, then it only takes a small overall improvement on everyone’s part to make the investment pay off in a huge way.”

Finally, Heath ends with an example from the public sphere that illustrates what happens when we don’t celebrate failure. We fire people, and we often do it “in a very public way because they are perceived as bad people. We learn nothing when we follow this path, but it somehow makes us feel better that some kind of action was taken, even If it was the wrong action.” Celebrating Failure is all about assessing rather than blaming so that we can improve our businesses and do better the next time.

Reviewed by Daria Steigman, founder of Steigman Communications, LLC and author of the Independent Thinking Blog.

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