Celebrating Losses: The Creative Power of Failing Fast
22 November 2022
Your presentation bombed. The field trial was a dud. You lost the sale. Things didn’t go at all the way you had envisioned.
Failure can generate a variety of reactions: disappointment, fear, self-doubt. But can it ever be something to celebrate?
In this article, five Weir ESCO team members share how a failing-fast mindset has helped them overcome fear of failure, value the learning that comes from experimentation and bounce back quickly when things do not go as expected.
Regional Manager, Weir ESCO; Queensland, Australia
“You can do everything right and still lose. Don’t give up.”
Phil Grifo says being adaptable and agile has served him well throughout his career, including 10 years with Weir. “I think I’ve intuitively embraced the concept of failing fast over the years,” he says. “It’s about being adaptable and refining a skill set that allows you to learn as you go.”
He points out the symbiotic relationship between failure and learning. “As kids we all must learn to walk and talk. It’s a process based in failure. We aren’t afraid at first, but we learn to fear failing as we go. We become conditioned to fear failure and it can paralyze us if we let it.”
Based on his experience, Phil says it’s possible to feel like you’ve done everything right—committed the time, maximized input from all departments and perfectly detailed your value proposition—but still lose a project.
“Tactical factors like price, lead time, support or submerged obstacles—such as relationships or history that you didn’t discover—can contribute,” he adds. “It takes time and good networking to define these but there are no guarantees you can overcome them.
“My advice, especially for emerging leaders, is don’t hesitate,” he says. “The mining industry expects you to fail from time to time and judges you on the recovery. What I see happen frequently is that the teams that keep trying and stay close to the customer, post failure, are better off in the long run.”
Field Services Engineer, Weir Motion Metrics; Vancouver, Canada
“There’s never a lost cause. Something comes out of it—data, relationships, learning.”
Field Services Engineer, Luke Trainor, is responsible for commissioning advanced monitoring systems at global mine sites. It is his job to ensure everything needed for the installation arrives and is set up properly.
But, Luke points out, “In the mining technology industry, nothing goes according to plan. In developing new software and products, our job is to deal with failure on a daily basis and find solutions. That’s what failing fast is about.”
He says his philosophy is to plan for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Case in point: Luke was handling an installation at a customer site in Australia. He and the team believed they had prepared down to the last detail, including anticipation of potential problems. When he arrived at the site, there was no internet service. In addition, the shovel that was to be part of the system was in a remote location with no cell coverage.
Luke and the mine operator spent two days trying to commission the system successfully. They got to know each other and became a united team to resolve the problem. “I’ve learned you are never alone,” Luke says. “Failure creates opportunities to build strong relationships and solve problems together.”
Senior HR Manager, Weir ESCO; Newton, Mississippi
“Failing fast is letting go of your fear.”
Senior HR Manager, Mark Doucette, believes that failing is a normal part of learning. “I have a plaque on my desk that says, ‘Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn.’ I live by that.”
“Sometimes you have to dive in when you don’t have all the answers,” he adds. “There may not be a way to totally prepare. You do your best and expect there are things you will learn.”
One such event happened earlier in Mark’s career when he served on the due diligence team for an acquisition. Mark says he followed the due diligence list and did all the mechanical things right, but still failed.
“I walked in and said, ‘You’re going to love our company.’ But that wasn’t how the employees were feeling about being acquired. They were upset and afraid. I learned it’s not just about the things on the list—how employees are feeling impacts an organization’s success.”
Mark promised himself that he would take a different approach if another opportunity came along. He was able to apply his learnings during Weir’s acquisition of ESCO in 2018.
Technical Project Manager, Weir Motion Metrics; Vancouver, Canada
“Just do something. Go build or connect something. See what works. Don’t overthink it.”
Sophia Piche likes to have all her ducks in a row. As a technical project manager for Weir Motion Metrics, she describes herself as a planner, a person who is most inside her comfort zone when she’s confident about the details.
However, “I’ve learned to fail fast by taking action,” she says. “That’s when you find the real solutions or the real problems to solve. I’ve learned to break a project into less daunting chunks—do smaller bits and pieces, see what works and build from there.”
One of the things she has done to increase her level of confidence is participate in startup weekends, events where anyone can develop and pitch new startup ideas. Participants team up to create a product, business model, prototype and perform market validation, and then present the business. The fast-paced event can lay bare the most well-conceived idea, usually resulting in a major pivot.
“It’s uncomfortable for me, but I push myself to do it,” says Sophia. “Any failure today is a constructive lesson for tomorrow.”
Technical Supervisor, Weir ESCO; Xuzhou, China
“Failure is a treasure for me. It’s a little bit of a loss, but it teaches me experience.”
An engineer by training, Wanxue Du says that failure is a very valuable asset to him. “There are always many failures on the way to success. The biggest gain I get from failure is that failure allows me to constantly reflect and summarize, and then try new ideas and methods until I achieve the desired result, until the problem is solved.”
For example, Wanxue—who works at Weir ESCO’s foundry in Xuzhou, China—was “working on reducing the sand inclusion on a particular casting. “I thought I had known the root reason. I ran trials and believed I could solve it,” he says. “However, the result was still bad.”
Not giving up, Wanxue took another look at the failure and applied the 5 Whys, a simple technique that allows a person to drill down to a problem’s root cause by asking the question “why” five times. Using this technique, “I concluded the action was correct, but the way to realize the action was wrong,” he shares.
Wanxue suggests that to learn to become comfortable with failing fast, early-stage engineers should “stop and make a conclusion” right away when facing failure. Using tools like the 5 Whys and PDCA (the plan-do-check-act method of carrying out change) can be helpful.