The Successful Future of Failure: How to Make Sure Your Business is Immune to Disruptive Change

The picture provokes thought. A once-expensive luxury car, 20 years past its prime and sporting faded paint, sits in an uncovered space in front of a rundown apartment complex. It’s a reminder that a reversal of fortune is always possible. Of course, it’s also possible that somebody recently bought a $900 Mercedes-Benz, but let’s not let logic spoil my artistic vision just yet.

We hear a lot about disruption these days – about dealing with change that threatens to reduce our success. But is it possible that planning for our failure will actually give us a future? In a Duke University-led study of 549 successful entrepreneurs in high-growth industries, 78 percent of respondents cited the importance of learning from failure as they planned their start-ups. While seemingly negative, planning for failure is a practical exercise in which leaders anticipate challenges and think of ways to sustain their business with minimal disruption.

Sustainability is the foundation of adaptability. Something that doesn’t have a process to keep it maintained runs the risk of not weathering the storm very well. But before I state the obvious again or unleash another metaphor, let me exercise my storytelling skills.

Years ago I met Karl, a WWII Luftwaffe pilot who flew bomber protection for the Germans over London. He said he learned he was on the losing side after hearing a broadcast in which Winston Churchill stated the only way to defeat England was house-to-house, family by family. Winning required the willingness to fight pitchfork-wielding housewives with curlers in their hair. If you could do that, Churchill supposedly said, then you’ll take England. Knowing Germany did not have the resources for a real invasion, Karl realized his nation would not be defeated by an army or even by the new British radar defense system; the Germans would be defeated by their own unsustainable tactics combined with the staunch mindset of their opponents.

It’s not like he could switch sides at that moment. But I think Karl was onto something: He read the competition, assessed circumstances and foresaw failure. And you can bet the experience taught him a thing or two he could apply as he rebuilt his life.

So what’s the business lesson here? Two come to mind. First, your success is always vulnerable to disruption if you ignore the deep-seated habits and mindset of the people. Ideas that go against human nature are sure to fail. Second, you avoid becoming the victim of disruption if you can look around the corner and anticipate what’s coming. Being too tightly married to your idea or strategy creates a blindness that prevents you from seeing what makes people quickly choose an alternative.

Businesses that fail to heed these lessons create ripe opportunities for the rest of us. For instance, weird-smelling cabs with psychotic, dishonest drivers and limo services that want to charge you double because they had to drive back to where they started are relatively easy targets for anyone wanting to dominate that market. After all, the unwritten rule of marketing is to go where people have done a terrible job; that way, if you do even an average job, you win every time. Even Uber, with all its navigation issues and with drivers who seem to consistently start out in the wrong direction, is better than a vehicle that smells like it runs on vintage fish tacos!

But let’s not aim for average. Instead, be so much better than what’s left of your once-competitive rival has no chance of a “last-minute Lazarus” move to gain back market share.

Here are the three foundations of disruption-proof thinking:

  1. With a positive approach, identify the most likely weakness your competitors could exploit. Then, either fix it or have a plan that can compensate for it. With great talent and ability often comes great weakness. But any weakness that you acknowledge as fact will leave you far less vulnerable than the weakness you were in denial of.
  2. Do the research – find out exactly what customers value and what they will most likely value in the future. The analytics and processes that exist might not be a crystal ball, but you will at least have the effective parlor tricks of a highly successful clairvoyant.
  3. Find the best market conditions for success: (a) People are generally dissatisfied with the idea, product or service that exists now. (b) The competition is poorly branded and the offerings are inconsistent, unclear and often unpleasant to experience.

Regarding this last point, facts are fantastic, but beliefs are better. It’s probably not true that most cab drivers and limo services are dishonest. It is true, however, that many people believe they’re dishonest.

It may seem that these foundations are not safeguards against disruption but rather the seeds for its creation. Contrary to popular belief, organizations that put a strong emphasis on long-term survival are the most likely to be innovators. It seems it’s difficult to end up with a better idea unless you are extremely sure of what a bad one looks like.

Garrison W. Wynn is an author, consultant and keynotes motivational speaker. He is the author of the books The Real Truth About Success: What the Top 1% Do Differently, Why They Won’t Tell You, and How You Can Do It Anyway!, and The Cowbell Principle.

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