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What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

England, Italy and France all failed to perform at the World Cup in July and the recriminations have varied.

The Italian public mostly shrugged and went off on their August vacations, the entire mutinous French squad was suspended from national duty (ringleader Nicholas Anelka for 18 matches) and the British press has been relentless in its recriminations.

The French and the English have been tearing themselves apart, searching their tortured souls for excuses, for reasons why their national teams did not perform at the highest level. The French even came up with the genius idea of blaming the English Premiership for their failure.

Sport is rather unforgiving, in that for one side to win, the other must lose. Spain won the World Cup, everyone else lost and to the victor the spoils.

Fortunately for most of us, the rest of life is not like this, it is not always a zero-sum game. The idea of business is that both sides benefit from a transaction; you don‘t need a loser in order for someone to win. Economically, societies can prosper without making others poorer.

Business is different from sport, but we can learn lessons from sporting failure.

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Australia sent 182 athletes and did not win a single gold medal. Australians love their sport and this was a national catastrophe; something had to be done.

The Australian Institute for Sport was set up in 1981 and it drew up the model for selection and training of elite athletes, which has become the blueprint for sports across the globe. In Athens, 2004, Australia stood number four in the gold medal table, phenomenal for a country of only 21 million.

In Beijing, 2008, Great Britain pushed Australia into fifth place, but only after adopting the Australian coaching system and some of their coaches.

Australia created success from failure, indeed it needed to fail and accept that failure in order to achieve success.

Economically there are examples of countries using failure to spur themselves to success. Both China and India had decades of failure before their economic transformations.

Deng Xiaoping started the slow and cautious economic reforms in 1978, when China was poorer than it had been in 1939 and was trying to recover from the disastrous effects of the Cultural Revolution. China is now the world’s second largest economy, after the US.

As finance minister of India, current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, initiated radical market reforms, beginning with the austerity budget in 1991, the year of India‘s huge currency crisis. India had been trying to borrow to cover the costs of its imports and this humiliation forced the reforms and the subsequent triumph.

Failure in sports and economics can be a catalyst to reform, but you must first admit that you have failed.

Following a recent study at the University of Denver Business School, professor Vinit Desai, said success may be sweeter, but that failure was a much better teacher. He said: “We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting, while knowledge from failure stuck around for years.”

Organisations tend to ignore failure, or try not to focus on it. Prof Desai says: “Managers may fire people, or turn over the whole workforce, while they should be treating the failure as a learning opportunity.”

The study was based on companies that launch satellites and shuttles into space, an industry where failure is high-profile and hard to hide. Interestingly, the researchers said they found “little significant organisational learning from success”.

Prof Desai compared the flights of the space shuttle Atlantis with that of the Challenger. During the 2002 Atlantis flight a piece of insulation broke off and damaged a solid rocket booster, but the mission was not impeded and there was little in the way of investigation.

When the Challenger was launched another piece of insulation broke off and the shuttle and its seven crew were destroyed.

Shuttle flights were subsequently suspended and a major investigation conducted, leading to 29 recommended changes.

Prof Desai says the difference in response to the two cases came down to this; “The Atlantis was considered a success and the Challenger a failure”.

He said: “Whenever you have a failure it causes a company to search for solutions and when you search for solutions it puts you in a different mindset,

a more open mindset.”

Prof Desai does not recommend seeking out failure in order to learn, but advises companies to analyse small failures and near misses to gain useful information rather than wait for major failures.

He says the most significant implication of the study is that organisational leaders should not ignore failures, nor stigmatise those involved with them. ”Leaders should treat failures as invaluable learning opportunities and encourage the open sharing of information about them.”

Failure is something normal and should be accepted and used positively. This can create loops back for those who stumble for whatever reason.

There is a crucial distinction between professional sport and other ways of life. Top sport does not accommodate second-raters, but even an airline pilot only needs to be competent and safe and does not need to be in the top 100 in the world, unlike a tennis player, for example.

People and organisations that disastrously miss their goals perform much better in the long term because they gain more knowledge from their failures than their successes and the lessons learned are more likely to stay with them.

At least, that’s what diehard French and English football fans should tell themselves.

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