Fail early and often

target-887802_1920As mentioned last month, I came across a new book—An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey—which builds a strong case for using “errors and vulnerabilities as prime opportunities for personal and company growth.” Amen.

This isn't revolutionary stuff for those of us in the "fail fast" school who believe that screwing up—quickly and even badly—is a necessary condition of successful innovation. But Kegan and Lahey take it a step further and build an organizational philosophy around celebrating flaws and weaknesses.

The authors give examples of successful businesses, fanatically committed to personal development, that encourage managers and employees to stop hiding their limitations and to use them as opportunities to develop both themselves and their companies. In these environments, “People’s limitations are seen as their growing edge,” the authors assert. But these limitations have to be mined. “Weaknesses are pure gold if we will only dig into them.”

It reminded me of some successful rock groups who were acutely aware of their constraints but overcame them early and used the lessons from those failures to become massively successful.

Some classic examples from classic rock:

The Beatles in their very early days in England were out-performed in a battle of the bands by an inferior skiffle group that put on a wildly entertaining show. (At the time the Beatles didn’t move much on stage when they played their instruments.) But after that humiliation, and after being subsequently warned by a Hamburg nightclub owner that to keep their gig they had to ratchet up their energy, The Beatles learned to flip the switch and play seven high octane sets a night. (See my earlier post on that.) Back in England they further developed their live show, eventually signed a record deal, and never looked back.

The Eagles were not taken seriously as rock & roll players in their early days (though Bernie Leadon was a great all-around musician) and despite some chart success they were continually put down as a "cowboy band" by critics and rock musicians I knew. Stung by the disparagement, the band decided to shift direction and beef up their personnel with the addition of Don Felder and later Joe Walsh, who became one of the hottest guitar tandems in rock history, boosting the Eagles' commercial and artistic stock. (See this video of Felder and Walsh—at the 4:10 mark—trading licks in "Hotel California.")

U2 had trouble singing and playing in tune for their first few years—and were even encouraged to dump their weakest musician at the time, bassist Adam Clayton. But as reported here, they just kept working and touring, becoming the most popular alt rock band of the last 30 years.

There are lots of interesting reasons why big-time success starts with failure, which we can knock around in the months ahead. But based on my experience in the music biz, one simple reason is that the early frustration (and disrespect) you experience gets you cranked up and motivated to succeed later. Maybe you can relate?

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  1. The Eagles perceived a flaw and brought in experts to fill a gap, help change direction. U2 saw a weakness and worked really hard.

    Different approaches for different needs? Were there other paths in each case? What might they have lost by changing their direction, or not changing their direction?

    Expound, please, my good man.

    1. Well, let's see. The Eagles didn't have the rock talent on the team so they HAD to look outside for it. They were strong songwriters and vocalists (especially Henley) but had a weak rhythm section—by rock standards—and no scorching lead guitarist. So they hired two veteran guitarists (and paid them as sidemen, but that's a separate story). They never actually addressed the weak rhythm section, but nobody noticed once Felder & Walsh were let loose. The Eagles did lose some shine as a pristine country-rock act, especially after Leadon and Meisner quit, but Frey and Henley wanted to take the band in a different direction—and they did so, successfully.

      U2 didn't have much talent (rock or otherwise) when they started, but they were determined to sink or swim as an undivided "team." And they had lots of 'tude which kept them going through some lean times until they acquired the vocal, instrumental, and songwriting skills they needed. (I guess you could argue that they always had the LATENT talent, but that's a separate subject.) They also had a reputation for being a high integrity act (they were/are pretty religious folks) who treated everyone fairly and avoided the usual rock & roll debauchery. I just can't imagine them firing or driving musicians out of the band, like The Eagles did (or mainly Frey & Henley). I don't think U2 lost anything by staying the course.

      It didn't occur to me until just now that both bands were insanely driven. Add The Beatles to the mix and you may have the three most ambitious bands in rock history.

  2. Another example is the band Counting Crows - I used to think the lead singer's voice was really whiny and annoying, and now... well, I still can't stand him - like nails on a chalkboard. I digress.

    Seriously though, in my own life in my "side job" there are lots of moving parts and stages of things happening. Often I judge myself because I'm not in the mood to do the last couple of stages, which is where the money comes in, so I end up spending a lot of time on one of the early stages where no money comes in.

    I could easily use the "weakness" of my lack of inspiration to do the parts of the job that make money to realize that I actually DO want to work, and I am working, and that if I keep at the other parts eventually inspiration (or frustration or some word ending in ion) will kick in, and I get around to the money making parts. In addition, those earlier stages really do need to happen at some point anyway, so that can be a way I can reframe that weakness as an opportunity.

    If I keep on with the first stages when I'm not motivated to do the latter stages, and accept that that's where I am at the moment without judging myself, eventually it will jumpstart me into the latter stages and I'll get to my goals.

    1. I think I follow that. :-)

      You DON'T like Adam Duritz's voice? You're the first person I've ever heard that from. Love their (his) version of "Yellow Taxi."

  3. I fell on my face a lot ... in school, competitive sports, business. But each setback made me hellbent to not repeat the failure. I've been pretty successful as a result. It helps to have a healthy ego.

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