Success has many parents, failure’s an orphan

First published in The Huffington Post on 20 May 2015

Lessons from failure and success
Supported by a fantastic team, my riding partner Charlie Mitchell and I broke the 49 year old record for cycling non-stop from Land’s End to John O’Groats on a tandem, shaving over 5 hours off the record to complete the 842 miles in 45 hours 11 minutes and 2 seconds. As a businessman who took up cycling as a hobby in my spare time, the experience has liberated rich pickings for my day job.

With a career spent in learning and development helping others achieve higher levels of performance, attempting this record scratched an itch. I had to see whether in applying all the lessons we shared with others, I could, as a businessman, with a hobby of long distance cycling, at which I was mediocre at best, achieve an extraordinary performance.

This was my third attempt (and Charlie’s first) at this iconic cycling record. The days following our success were a series of media interviews, flurries of congratulatory texts and much, much celebration. The contrast with the period immediately after the failures was poignant. Few cared, some admired the bravery in attempting such a feat but for most, it simply passed them by. Coming to terms with failure after years of training was a lonely, soul searching business. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, and as the days pass I can see how much I have gained from both being a serial failure and a success.

Let them ride the wave with you
To paraphrase Count Galeazzo Ciano, success has many parents, failure is an orphan. So many people have had a hand in helping us break the record. Each of them feels a great sense of pride at having helped the team succeed. It is a joyful experience celebrating with them the role they played. Each has their version and account of events to share with friends and in doing so, each spreads the word further.

The lesson I take back into business is the value in allowing others to own the success. It has created an incredible sense of goodwill and happiness. It has also helped from the practical perspective of delivering value to those who sponsored us. The shared images, video and stories have created a level of awareness beyond what we imagined. In turn, this has raised substantially the level of support offered to us for the next challenge. Achieving a significant success has given me a calling card that opens doors hitherto closed to me. The more you help people feel a part of the success the more they want to help you.

Failure is about focus
I’m glad to have been successful, but I now see that the deep and profound lessons came through the failures. Failure is not binary “you did it – you didn’t do it”. Much of the work will have been useful development. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel each time. In each attempt we believed we had done enough preparation to break the record. We hadn’t. Having overcome the disappointment, we examined every aspect of our performance to find ways of improving what we were doing. We banked the good stuff and focused on the areas where we decided we had underperformed.
On our first attempt there were so many things to think about that we were able to focus only a small amount of attention to each aspect. On our second attempt, we narrowed the areas of focus and hence were able to spend more time on fewer issues. By the time we came to the third attempt, we were extremely focused on the three or four dimensions we knew were the most critical to achieve success. When I look back through the notes made through the years, there is a huge body of work examining a vast number of issues. Each attempt was a genuine build on the last.

My concern in business is that the current mechanisms for measuring performance do not allow for failure. Remuneration and promotion prospects depend on getting things right all the time. However, what many of us know is that success comes from repeated failure and learning and applying the lessons to improve what we do. Our predecessors who set the last record 49 years ago took two attempts to do so. In fact a review of the accounts of many successful people shows a history of failure before success was achieved.

The benefit of being a failure
Failure seems to me to have four key benefits.

1. With failure comes a humility that helps you appreciate more the efforts of others and be empathic to their trials and tribulations. This places you in a better position to coach and mentor their performance towards greater levels of success.

2. It toughens up decision making. Failure is a bitter pill and the motivation to avoid it next time means a greater willingness to take the tough decisions that may cause some frustration and upset in others, but unless taken, success remains a possibility rather than a probability.

3. Failure allows you to practise. For example, the small amount of media work done around the two previous attempts enabled me to get the messaging right when we finally succeeded. The years of additional training meant we were much better as a team going into the final attempt than we had been previously.

4. Failure drives efficiency and effectiveness. With very limited time and having to rely on the goodwill of friends, family and some sponsorship we learned how to get more from the limited resources available.

You need to be lucky
There is one final observation that has struck me and that is the significance of luck. Successful people tell you, you make your own luck. Unsuccessful people will cite bad luck as a contributory factor in their failure. As a serial failure come good, my take is that you do need luck. Preparation helps capitalise on that luck when it goes in your favour. But in 842 miles of cycling, luck played its part, whether it be traffic lights on green at the precise moment we arrived at them, or road closures delayed for five minutes enabling us to squeak through, or the lorry that turned across our path narrowly avoided or punctures metres away from where the support vehicle happened to have stopped, these things cannot be construed as anything other than luck. The same is true in business, we need a bit of luck and we should have the humility to recognise that.

On reflection
Would I have preferred to break the record the first time round? Of course! I wouldn’t wish the pain, anguish, doubt and sense of failure on anyone else. That said, success is all the sweeter and my insights all the richer from the failure. If you can embrace your failure you simply can’t be a loser. And that for me, above all else is the most important lesson.

Dominic Irvine © 2015 All rights asserted.

Read Dom’s thoughts on Performance Management in his article Performance – The Madness of Forced Ranking.

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