Blog: Fail Forward Into Success


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Todd Palmer is founder and president of Troy-based Diversified Industrial Staffing and Diversified PEOple LLC and a regular contributor to DBusiness.

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In business and in life, failure is going to occur.  It’s inevitable and it’s necessary. It is where the greatest amount of growth, learning, and personal development occurs. Each of us will handle failing in business differently, based upon how we view failure.

Do you subscribe to the Webster’s Dictionary definition of failure?

A) Failing to perform a duty or expected action;

B) Or a lack of success.

Or do you take on a more positive definition of failure, such as the one subscribed to by former British Prime Minister during World War II, Sir Winston Churchill, who believed that “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

In order to execute the Churchill definition, a business owner or manager must become a business leader. They must increase their sense of awareness around the idea of failure and what it means to them. 

Here is a definition of failure that flips failure completely around, from Dr. Danny Friedland.

“I give it my all and I learn. If I invested in the experience, and I learned from it, can I ever truly fail?  Failures are nothing more than feedback along my path to success.”

Can you think of a more inspiring definition of failure?

The solution is to not use failing as a barrier to success. Instead, use failure as a catalyst for success. In other words, successful entrepreneurs and business leaders do not see failure as win or lose scenario.  

Instead, they create a positive framework around it:

  • Recognize the pattern- i.e. what is not working.
  • Set an intention (not an expectation) of what they would like to see differently.
  • Create a strategy to break the pattern.
  • Take action.
  • Get feedback. This can come from employees, clients, Wall Street, etc.

This helps business leaders stay on the path of success, as Churchill would say, without a loss of enthusiasm

One of the most famous fail-forward into success stories is that of Harland Sanders, better known to lovers of fried chicken, as Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sanders, after the age of 65, had to reinvent his definition of success.  

At the time, he had one restaurant, in North Corbin, Ky., which was located on a highly-trafficked road, bringing him plenty of hungry travelers.

However, after the construction of Interstate 75 bypassed his restaurant, he was forced to sell the operation due to a loss of some customers and revenue. Fewer customers no longer drove past his location.

He took the one asset he had: his mother’s chicken recipe, and set out across the country to try to sell it. 

He went from one diner to the next, cooking the recipe for restaurant owners, making just enough to continue his sales journey. He lived off of his meager savings and $105 per month from Social Security.

He was so determined that he slept in the back of his car and found great pleasure in teaching potential customers how to make his recipe using his unique techniques. However, he was struggling to make his first sale. He was failing. He needed to re-frame failure.  

  • He recognized the pattern of what was not working. He realized that frying the chicken didn’t differentiate him enough in the eyes of restaurant owners, so he began pressure cooking the chicken, which allowed the food to be processed quicker, with a unique flavor.
  • He set an intention (not an expectation) of what they would like to see differently. He focused on creating a sustainable business income stream that was not dependent on one location. He sought to receive .04 cents from every chicken sold, creating recurring revenue.
  • He created a strategy to break the pattern and then took action. He took to the road and demonstrated the process, cooking the chicken himself.
  • And he got feedback. He and his recipe where rejected 1,009 times. Talk about a lot of feedback!

And, as it usually happens in life, one chance is all he needed.

In 1952, the “Kentucky Fried Chicken” recipe was franchised for the first time in Salt Lake City.

Ten years later the Colonel experienced significant success and the company soon grew to more 600 franchised outlets. 

At 73, he sold KFC to investors for $2 million (which is more than $15 million today). After that, he became a salaried brand spokesman. 

Today, KFC is the world’s fourth-largest restaurant chain with over 20,000 locations across the globe. And, Colonel Sanders is still on the logo.

He failed forward 1,009 times into success, to build a global brand.

Being a business leader is not a “everyone gets a trophy” lifestyle. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always create happiness. Some days you win, some days you lose.

However, if approached correctly, it can be hugely satisfying. 

Todd Palmer is founder and president of Troy-based Diversified Industrial Staffing and Diversified PEOple LLC and a regular contributor to DBusiness.​

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