Failure: Why Most Things Don’t Work

I was a community development worker for over 30 years and when I started in 1980, I was totally unsuited to the role.  I had been a research scientist, I was deeply introverted and terrified of relating to people.  I was also terrified of failure.

What I had to offer though was problem-solving.  When faced by a crisis, I stayed with it and took up the challenge.  Often I was surrounded by activist people who asked me for an interpretation of what was happening.  “What are our options?” 

I found I am highly perceptive but weaker at judgement.  When I trusted others with my insights, things were more likely to go well.  It took me a long time to learn not to take charge but to build trust in my insights.

Fear of Failure

Why was I so afraid of failure?  Partly it was being employed.  I wanted to please my employers and keep my job – or receive good references.  Therefore success was essential.  My defensiveness meant I took ages to understand one simple fact:

Most Things Don’t Work!

Once I understood this I became more confident.  I understood my strengths and managed the expectations others had of me.  I stopped trying to take command and focussed on finding and supporting leaders.  This didn’t always work (of course) but I was no longer stressed by failure – now it was part of the job.  I learned how to manage expectations – that community development is more about building relationships than it is about managing projects.

Now I am self-employed I find the same insights apply equally to business.

How Failure Works

The path to success is through repeated failure.  Look closely at anyone’s story of business success and you find long periods of failure.  Typically these are at the beginning of a successful business.  Frequently, an initial success is followed by a long period of not very much happening. 

No-one experiences success without failure.  The confidence of successful people comes from their overcoming of failure and not their ultimate success.  Success is a small island at the far side of a wilderness of failure.  You might never find the island or perhaps not recognise it when you do!

There are people who are born lucky, who inherit wealth and can afford expensive failure.  They are not “annealed by suffering” and often display zero emotional intelligence.  Is this success or a monumental failure?  We all know what happens when they get their hands on the levers of power. 

I’ve written about these immortals before.  Don’t think they are only billionaires with social media accounts.  I’ve met them leading community groups and churches.  Why immortals?  They believe they are indispensable.  It is as if they will never die (until they do). 

Those who experience failure learn grit, determination and humility.  Now they are ready of success. 

A Taxonomy of Failure

This sequence of blog posts explores what goes wrong.  So far I have 15 sources of failure.  Surely there are more?  Here is my list – I’ll update them as we go.  If you know of others, leave a comment and perhaps I’ll add them to the list!  Maybe I’ll ask you to write a guest post!  I’ll add links to each post as I publish them.

  1. Stage of business development
  2. Context
  3. Clear about business purpose – three aims.
  4. Your Worldview
  5. Not Knowing: Why?
  6. Conflict
  7. Lack of persistence
  8. Poor Positioning
  9. Pitiful Pricing
  10. Lack of Confidence
  11. My Market is Everyone
  12. Technical solutions
  13. Too theoretical
  14. Quality or Quantity?
  15. Financial Mismanagement 
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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

Leave a Reply 2 comments

Ruth McIntosh - January 15, 2019 Reply

Thanks Chris. I wonder which successful failure you are alluding to here? Sorry. I mean it is quite clearly a certain current President of the US? Unlike said billionaire Pres, I am currently experiencing feelings of failure, at the very most a sense of stasis as I (yawn) wait for work to trickle my way. Regarding the pleasing people thing – yes – good people try hard because they are kind. It’s only when you get older that you realise that some people just won’t like you. More fool them!

Chris - January 15, 2019 Reply

Thanks Ruth,

History shows us it is the desperate who make change. My favourite is the Retail Co-operative Movement – thousands of ordinary working people who together invented institutions such as wholesale networks, department stores, insurance, building societies. Whilst the rich were running the British Empire the poor revolutionised the way society is run.

Every successful business begins with failure. The difference is that they don’t give up. They show up and slog away until they find success. There are no guarantees, perhaps we don’t hear stories from those who give up.

I decided to write this sequence so that business owners can get to grips with failure. Often we don’t know why we fail. If you polarise your audience so that some like you and some don’t, that is often a sign you are on the right track. What can you offer your fans so they will help you promote your business?

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