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Why Owning Failure Makes Good Business Sense

We all talk about innovation in our technology sector.  That means trying new things in order to create new things.  But couple that drive to innovate with being “sensitive” when it comes to taking responsibility for things that “don’t work”  or being “risk averse” where there is high likelihood of missteps and you might see that there is a problem.   It was Einstein who said: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”.  More humorously Thomas Edison purportedly said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” But he also is quoted as saying: “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  Or “Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I will show you a failure.” 

So why is it that in many cultures we fail to own our failures, going to great pains to sweep under the proverbial rug, things that are not glowing successes?  If we don’t learn from our failures we are destined to repeat them.

From our industry Bill Gates is quoted as saying: “Once you embrace unpleasant news not as negative but as evidence of a need for change, you aren’t defeated by it. You’re learning from it.”

Bill Gates. (n.d.). Retrieved September 17, 2013, from Website:

Owning failure isn’t only about turning the failure into a success.  It can also include acknowledging the pain and sometimes understanding that a failed attempt might indicate a venture that needs to be aborted. Knowing when to cut your losses and change course is also a valuable skill.

In that spirit of learning, embracing, owning failure, I’d like to invite the community to share experiences here.  My friend and colleague Greg Chase called it the “Fail Confessional”.   And rather than a confession, let us think of these conversations as learning opportunities for others.

Here are some good links to whet your appetite:

We will host a series of FAILfaire events at the SAP TechED 2013 where we will explore how to relate to failure and gain inspirations from the shared
experiences of a number of outstanding speakers.  We will learn how to create a safe environment for speaking openly of failure.

*Note: Additional thoughts on Failure and Accountability can be found here: How Blame Impacts Failure and Impedes Innovation

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  • Great, Marilyn - it is always good to learn from failure - I have learned a lot from my failures and looking back in hindsight, I'm glad some happened.

    I look forward to learning more about this.

    • Thanks Tammy.  I could easily start the ball rolling by discussing the first attempts in 2006 to extend our developer community and create a Business Process Expert Community as a sister community to SDN.  There were many, many learnings there for our team. I gained many personal lessons around how the community viewed itself as contrasted to the ways we wished to personify the community.  I also have had some interesting failures in the realm of virtual classroom training and virtual knowledge exchange.  Had I not tried and failed to teach virtually, I wouldn't be part of SCN today 🙂 .  I bless that failure daily....and my work with education in that sphere was an example of understanding when it doesn't make sense to insist on a certain path or solution-- so using failure to change course can be as useful as continuing experiments until you succeed.  Of course the definition of insanity is repetitively doing the same thing over and over thinking that the outcome will somehow be different. 😛

  • Hi Marilyn,

    Great to finally know what is coming our way at SAPTechEd! I'm sure you know that your sessions are always one of the highlights of the whole week, for me and many others.

    So yes, count me in again! As homework, I'll try to recall some of my failures from the past.

    I certainly agree with the premise that failures can drive you forward, maybe more so than successes (though every once in a while I can use these too 🙂 ). Provided there is a company/community/... culture that allows for mistakes to be made and learned from, without punishing whoever makes them. I'm sure that won't be a problem at SAPTechEd with so many like-minded and open people. It's still very useful though to discuss how organizations where this is not the norm might be changed for the better (and what steps we should take towards that goal).

    Again: looking forward to such a Failfaire/Confessional 🙂 .

    Cheers, Fred

    • SAPTechEd is indeed fertile grounds for open dialogue.  I look forward to your participation. Creating a safe environment to speak about failure is part of our challenge.  Also having some guidance and tools for how to analyze failure and deconstruct it will be instrumental in our understanding.  To that end we will have not only some expert stories and a panel discussion, but also a form of workshop with practical tools and guided experience.  I'm extremely excited about this.  Some fabulous minds are at work!!

  • Marilyn,

    I am already looking forward to the Failfaire Confessional. The evening events you plan for TechEd have always been opportunities for us to expand our thinking and interact with folks outside our usual areas of expertise, and I'm sure this event will be another such memorable evening for those lucky enough to attend.


    • Thank you.  The success will be governed by the quality of the participation and the conclusions others draw.  I am looking forward to learning and also sharing courageously if need be. Privilege of my age is that I have quite a few decades to draw upon.

  • Dear Marilyn,

    As you already know, you can count on me. It will be very interesting to share these experiences, learn with ours and others failures. I don't have any doubt that you will succeed creating a safe environment to make everybody comfortable, as you have always done.

    Looking forward to it. See you in Amsterdam!

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence. knows quite well how I felt the first time I ran one of these events.

      @vijay_vijayasankar and @jon_reed and @matthias_steiner met a rather disappointed community advocate the "morning after" and together with @thorsten_franz helped me plot a revised version.  Perhaps I didn't fail but found multiple ways for the event not to work 🙂

  • Hi Marilyn,

    very nice open thoughts, as I commented in Jonathan Becher's blog on learning to be successful the fear of failure coupled with the fear of being seen to fail by others is what holds most people back.

    Of my many theories on life, the universe and everything, I personally I believe that the number of mistakes/failures which exist in the universe is finite.

    And therefore,


         we can go through life

         learning from our mistakes/failures

         taking in our own lessons learned in everything we do

         and most importantly not making the same mistake twice




                   reach our goals.

    you notice, there's no else statement in this theory.

    Everything is waiting for us, we just have to harvest it.

    On a personal note, I've made every mistake in the book, but I've only made each mistake once, and every one has been a lesson learned.

    Which brings me to another question, what is intelligence ?

    My definition of intelligence:

    Intelligence is the application of knowledge and experience (where experience is learning from failures).

    All the best with the sessions at TechEd.


    • Love your developer style comment.  I believe it was Brecht who said: "Intelligence has limits but stupidity is infinite" .  I think we often confuse honest, informed errors with lapses in intelligence and we then rush to place a dunce cap or shame descriptor on them.   Many errors are the product of misinformation or missing information and shouldn't be equated with stupidity.  When I was teaching ABAP I often noticed reticence to ask a so called "stupid" question.  The only thing foolish is the fear to ask.....and question.  How do we diminish that fear and not impede learning is a real challenge.

      • Hi Marilyn,

        how do we diminish that fear ?

        Why are people, why do people fear to make mistakes or be seen to have failures ?

        Because a lot of people are from the culture where mistakes and failures are punishable offences.

        This means, it is simply not (and to use your word) safe for people to make mistakes or failures.

        If it were safe to make a mistake or failure and reflect and learn from it, then mistakes and failures would be positively profited from and shared to the common benefit of all.

        Companies with no-blame cultures are a big step in the right direction.

        In my SAP work, most companies I have been at during the last ten years have exercised a practice  of doing lessons learned workshops after completion of projects.

        The concept has worked like this, ahead of the lessons learned workshop everybody on the project documents their lessons learned and shares them in a document repository. Then, in the workshop all of the lessons learned are discussed and walked through and shared and documented to the common benefit of all and future projects.

        Included in the workshops there have been the concepts of, what could have been done better and why, what worked well and why, what didn't work well and why.

        I think your concept of a safe environment is spot on and I have read other blogs and comments in the last year or so where people have commented positively on the safe environment you create.

        I wish you all the best with the sessions and will be curious to see a blog afterwards giving an overview of the exercise.

        Best regards,


  • My 2 cents on this topic

    Specifically - it is not failing itself, but it is failing responsibly that makes good business sense for me.

    Everyone at some point realizes that failures are invaluable lessons in forming their character. However, that seldom translates to not repeating mistakes. Individuals can fail many times and get up and get punched in the face again - businesses don't always have that ability. It is not intuitive - but not hard to figure out either ( think in terms of commitment to share holders, lack of budget, time, competitive situation etc).

    Smart leaders plan for failure - as opposed to randomly trying many different things recklessly. The point is - you cannot keep failing without some bad consequence.

    Balancing the need to learn from failing - and figuring out when failure is no longer an option , that is what separates the best from the rest.

  • Hi Marilyn,

    Ofcourse, failure doesnt matter, but whether we learnt from the failure and try again is matter a lot..  one need power to face failure and courage to take a next step.

    Very interesting.. Its really good to have these kind of topics between the techincal stuffs.

    do you have plan for this in Banglore also?



    • Yes this is planned for Bangalore.  Would you be willing to actively engage? I seek bold practitioners who are willing to share and model stories on the panel. I will also need to find facilitators for the tables at the workshop.

  • Marilyn,

    I really look forward to this event and I'm already enjoying the discussion in the SAP community about failing. It is a vital step for our community as a whole as it matures, and a great learning opportunity for each individual in it.


  • "AudioBlogger and our podcast directory with casual recording tools didn't generate the level of usage that we had expected,


    This, along with tremendous competition from Apple and other heavyweights, sapped the optimism of our investors and the Odeo corporate board.

    We were forced to reinvent ourselves."

    from "140 CHARACTERS" by @Dom Sagolla

  • Hi Marilyn,

    Thanks for sharing this great thought.

    A failure at least tells us "How Not To do" something and in the phase of knowing "How Not To Do" we end up finding " How To Do" it 🙂

    The blog reminds of a famous quote by Steve Jobs about "Connecting the Dots"


  • Thank you Marilyn for this great discussion and looking forward to attending the FAILfaire event at TechEd '13. Unfortunately, I received the invitation at 3am and when I woke up and clicked on Accept, all seats where gone 🙁

    Failure in my personal view is always a new opportunity for success. I see it as getting closer and not farther from success because the more you fail, this means you are trying hard and that's by itself is a recipe for success. Like each one of us in our early days of walking, by nature, we kept standing up and trying again until we learnt how to walk. Same thing with speech.

    Considering falling to be the end is not natural, it's a choice we make. We are designed to stand up and try again until we succeed and if we choose to stay down, that's a choice against our nature. The way I see it, you are mentally working hard to stay down as opposed to standing up and trying again.


    • Yes, this did fill up unbelievably quickly.  Even I, who knows how this works, was pretty flabbergasted.  The topic is an interesting one and the speakers and workshop content will be excellent.  I imagine that those who are truly passionate about participating will. While I cannot promise entry to all on the waiting list, I can promise to work to accomodate those that really want to engage.

    • Funny isn't it?  One would think that FAIL isn't a particularly attractive word and yet this is drawing so much attention and interest.  I do hope that all that want to participate actively can be accomodated.

  • Hi Marilyn, what a great post!

    I'm someone with a deep passion for entrepreneurship and I'm working on leveraging my tech background on ERP (as an ABAP and SD consultant) and learning all the new stuff on HANA, Mobile, Cloud and Design Thinking.

    I think that what you are talking about is highly relevant for entrepreneurship (even inside existing companies) and also for the new possibilities of engineering using these new tech tools. Design Thinking and "Resiliency to Failure" can be a big background to go fast forward.

    I'm beginning to read the Design Thinking books avaialable at Amazon which one of the authors is Hasso Plattner. They are not cheap books, but I think will be worth the price and effort in reading.

    Unfortunately I won't be on SAP TechEd this year, but if it's possible to watch your sessions online, surely I'll !

    Thank you and best regards.

    • Thanks for your welcome comments.  I think we can grassroots record it Douglas or at least attempt to capture some of the panel discussions.  It will be a rough video but I'm also interested in having such content as further conversations evolve.

  • Hi Marilyn,

    Great writing with fantastic comments by other members.

    I am sure this event would really bring lots of learning. Cant miss it. Looking forward to the same event at Bangalore.



  • Very nice Marilyn... Owning a failure is something that makes you learn so many things..think out of box...and actually a source of motivation to bounce back with full force:)..

    It does really heart when you have put in so much efforts but it still fails. The point to be understood here is there is always a scope for improvement come whatever may.



  • Great blog Marilyn, This blog is really a motivational one. Good to know that SCN is doing great job to help community members/blog readers personal skills along with technical skills.

    Hope FAILfaire events will be a huge success.

    - Midhun VP

  • Hiii Marilyn,

    It is really good blog. it's change my point of view for failure. now I think if I will get any success in future all credit goes to you. 😛


  • Hello Marilyn,

    I always try to read every post of your's, as all of them have full of knowledge, learnt a lesson from this post, very nice comment which you added from Thomas Edison, I believe, I can sometime use this for my clients, if something didn't worked, as expected.

    "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work" - Thomas Edison.

    Thank for sharing,

    Nishan Dev