Last night I held an Olympic gold medal in my hands. Not mine, alas, it was one (Sydney, 2000) of five won by Sir Steven Redgrave. I was attending an event where he was the guest speaker and the medal was passed around the audience. It was a great speech and brought about the usual discussion and comparisons between business and sporting success.
There is one tip I wish would come up more often at these events: It’s good to lose.
Successful sports men and women are fiercely competitive – winning is the name of the game after all. But even if you are the champion of champions, the reality is that, over the course of your career, you will lose more often than you win. Like it or not (not, mostly) you have to become a good loser. A good loser sees every loss as a learning opportunity – it exposes a weakness that can be fixed or eliminated. Being a good loser does not mean that you have to like losing – quite the opposite is preferable – but it does remove the fear. If you fear losing (as most bad losers do) you will never take the risks needed to develop your strengths and get to the top of your game.
Whenever I see an organization, team or project that is risk-averse, it is usually because the people involved fear failure. I have seen examples where more money has been spent on risk analysis than was needed to just go ahead, install a piece of technology and see what happens. This is particularly true for knowledge and collaboration systems, and is why the most successful implementations tend to start small and spread organically. Planning a massive centralized knowledge system will be expensive and the value difficult to predict, making it high-risk in the eyes of the investors. Whilst the central team is still arguing over a standard taxonomy plan, business units can get simple collaborative tools up and running with minimal cost and effort.
Being risk-averse prevents success. It is taking risks, and sometimes losing, that generates a fresh brew of knowledge. And having a system (up and running, not on the whiteboard) to capture those insights will help turn them into successful actions.
I have only experienced one company that really behaves like a sports person and understands the benefits of losing – Microsoft. Love or hate the company, once a path has been chosen Microsoft is relentless at doing whatever it takes to be successful, and is not afraid to fail publicly en route.