Don’t think about using the F-word, triage your startup

Start-ups have always been risky, perpetually hovering with an uncertain future, but the pandemic is turbocharging natural selection and causing a hiatus for many. In just a few weeks, many have cut or furloughed employees, and funding is drying up – startup funding in the first three months of 2020 was on a pace for its second-steepest quarterly decline in ten years, said CB Insights. The virus just nailed it.

The fallout is hitting the highest-profile tech businesses too. For example, Airbnb. valued at $31Bn, has stopped hiring and has suspended $800m of marketing. The coronavirus outbreak is economically akin to a major earthquake occurring for weeks on end. There are no distractions now, there is no coddled. You need to have thick skin and a high adversity quotient.

Start-ups in some sectors – telemedicine, food delivery, online learning, remote work, gaming – are thriving amid the quarantine, but the pain is now deeper and most likely just beginning as investors, already bruised by the collapse of a string of tech unicorn valuations last year, become even more cautious. Indeed Sequoia Capital issued a warning to start-ups, calling Covid-19 the black swan of 2020, and calling on its portfolio firms to rein in costs, conserve cash and brace for capital scarcity.

The coronavirus strikes at a time when many of the tech unicorns were looking ropey. Their perpetually loss-making business models and exuberant valuations were increasingly being questioned. Most telling, the gospel of growth at all cost has gone out of the window. After years of ‘blitzscaling’ being done without much focus on profits, path to profitability is the new watchword. The law of economic gravity has returned, as some discern an echo of the bursting dotcom bubble of twenty years ago. The F-word is out there. Failure. Others are more sanguine. Whoever is right, startup pastures that emerge in the aftermath will look very different.

Unicorns have come a long way since Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Venture Capital coined the term in 2013, to convey wonder and rarity. Post Covid-19, it’s reckoned that a third of tech unicorns will thrive, a third will disappoint and a third will be taken over or die. But the euphoria began to ebb last year. First, Uber’s IPO priced at a 30% discount to what the investment bankers had promised, Slack disappointed, then, in October, WeWork disclosed that it lost as much money as it generated in revenues. Its valuation was cut from $47bn to $8bn. A different F-word there.

So, I need to confront the F-word taboo this week, as I’ve heard a few tech founders use it in the UK, and it’s become part of their vocabulary. Yes, Failure.

We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful. So rather than thinking about startup funerals, wakes and autopsies, lets focus on survival, and determine the priority of startup patient fixes and treatments, based on the severity of their condition that can halt the terminal decline. Let’s talk about startup triage.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. The term originated during the Napoleonic Wars from the work of Dominique Jean Larrey. Those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards would divide the victims into three categories:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

The term ‘post-mortem’ is Latin for after death, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any ‘after the fact’ analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Such analyses are have been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago Egyptian doctors recorded wounds, treatments and results to build up a body of knowledge about what did and did not work. Military strategists have long studied every battle so that they could learn lessons without having to suffer defeats.

The post-mortem is focused on understanding what we did wrong and historically (and perhaps psychologically), failure has proven to be one of our best teachers. ‘Failure’ has become an integral part of the startup vocabulary, where we have the mantra ‘fail fast’ as a way of learning and making quick changes to find product/market fit.

Indeed ‘fail early, fail often’ has become something of a startup badge of honour that makes it sound like it’s a good thing, but I struggle with the fascination with failure being the source of lessons to be learned. Pause for a moment, what did you really learn? You learned what didn’t work. So, ‘we all learn from our mistakes’ – you’d like to think that we won’t make the same mistake twice, but as Jason Fried said, You might know what didn’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

Making mistakes isn’t part of a scalable startup model. So if we accept that learning from failure is overrated, how can we turn the ‘it’s good to fail’ philosophy on its head into a new way of thinking, that the most valuable experience to take your startup to the next level is learning from the stuff you got right? Isn’t this just about taking what you’ve done that others don’t have, and creating further advantage from it?

So, what are the triage priorities? Here are some thoughts.

Triage 1: Start for purpose, don’t start for money If you set out simply to make headlines motivated by success equating to money, you’re setting yourself up for failure. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them. Now is the time to focus on purpose, not revenue.

Triage 2: Define what success looks like If success is defined as a big raise, going public or being acquired, it is a skewed measure of success. How about sustainable growth, loving your work, and making a dent in your universe? You may need to reset your North Star.

Triage 3: Don’t assume, find a need Just because your mum, your best friend, and your dog think that your idea and business model is cool, doesn’t mean that you have a valid business. Move quickly to get a MVP to test on real potential customers. Get worthwhile feedback, tweak your product and model as needed, and repeat this process until you find what truly works. Now is the time to experiment, not being maudlin about failure.

Triage 4: Nail it, then scale it Via your MVP, find your formula for solving the problem, figure out your ‘secret sauce’ and scale, but don’t scale until you find your formula first. You need to ensure you have product-market fit, and that there is a sizeable market to sustain your business model. Asking questions to define the problem comes before you build your full product. Use this time for more customer discovery than you’ve ever done before.

Triage 5: Take control of your emotions A startup founder’s feelings are contagious, so you need to be in control of your emotions, or your team will see through you. Being down-in-the-dumps and muttering the F-word isn’t going to help anyone. Mental toughness is needed now. Lead with confidence and calmness, avoid getting too elated or too despondent on the highs and lows.

Triage 6: Know when to value speed vs. stability Developing great tech, content and a team simultaneously takes time. You try to make each deep and stable, but also need to be agile and pivot. Keeping all aspects of your startup aligned for growth is a real challenge – but keep shooting for the horizon. Noah built an ark – what are you going to build?

Triage 7: Control and calculate your user acquisition costs Many startups initially conceive of marketing as a creative exercise. That’s partly true, but the best marketing is controlled and calculated. If you know how much it costs to acquire a user and you control the process. Now’s the time to double down on marketing strategy, reducing your marketing plan from fuzzy guesswork to a clean formula.

Triage 8: Don’t move slow. Move fast. Moving at a snail’s pace and waiting for the next blow to your business can be detrimental, losing advantage in terms of getting customers first. Be sure to move fast, but not so fast that you lose attention to detail. Find a pace that you can work within that allows you to make smart decisions while also moving your business forward. That’s a better F-word – forward.

There are entrepreneurs who fail first time, learn and then succeed second time round, but people generalise from anecdotal success-after-failure stories. There is a lot of startup folklore and myth out there. Failure is an opportunity to try again, a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change your business model.

We all want to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. But don’t enjoy the scratched knees. Appreciate where you are at each point. Everything is a learning experience, good and bad, there’s something to be learned. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.

Keep your self-belief and keep your eyes open, you will inevitably see opportunities when the dark clouds clear. Keep walking with your head held high, reaching for the sky and not walking with your gaze on your feet and seeing only puddles. I forget where I recently read this anecdote, but a young boy was looking to get a job. Everywhere he went, he heard they weren’t hiring, so he decided to set a new goal: for each company he visited, he would either get a job or sell them a “Not hiring” sign which he would make.

For me, keep pushing forward and having a triage mindset to encounter the wounds experienced in your startup life. Failure is not an option, be relentless, be limitless, but not simply doing the same thing as last time. If what you’re doing now is not a viable solution in this new world and in a different economy, then find something that is. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want. Don’t develop a fetish for failure.

Reflections on the failure of Flybe offer insights for your startup strategy

If 007 is taking cover for the next few months, what hope is there for us mortals left exposed to the economic ravages of the spreading coronavirus? The release of the next James Bond film, No Time To Die, has been postponed until November. There will be better profits made then, and film distributors can afford to wait.

Others can’t, though, they have to battle through some tough times ahead, and airline Flybe collapsed on Thursday, the first to fall because it had underlying financial health problems in the most exposed sector to the economic impact of coronavirus. This has been underlined with an announcement by Lufthansa that it plans to cut up to half its capacity in the next few weeks, while grounding its biggest aircraft.

There will likely be big differences in vulnerability and impact between sectors. There will be a shift to online shopping, but while household income is uncertain, big ticket expenditure could stop abruptly. But let’s look at Flybe, because in reality the sharp downturn in revenue in response to the global infection was the final straw that broke their business model, and offers insights to startups intent on an aggressive, high growth strategy.

Flybe carried 8m passengers a year between 56 airports in the UK and Europe, with over 210 routes across 15 countries, but had a very unstable fragile strategy, operating model and ownership history. The Flybe brand originated in July 2002, positioning itself as a full-service, low-fare airline. Various pricing and product introductions were made in line with this position, such as discounted one-way tickets, the abolition of overbooking practices, a customer charter of the airline’s service standards, as well as compensation for delays.

The company acquired BA Connect in 2007, increasing its route network in both the UK and continental Europe, making Flybe Europe’s largest regional airline. But there were turbulent times, and fast forward to 2013, and Flybe sold its slots at Gatwick for £20m – out of 158 routes flown, 64 did not cover the operating expenses of crew and aircraft.

Despite this downsizing, in April 2014, Flybe announced that it would launch domestic and international flights from London City Airport, signing a five-year deal. Into 2015, Flybe announced new routes from Cardiff and Sheffield Airport starting nine new European city routes, and twelve months later opened a hub at Dussledorf.

Despite this growth strategy, November 2018 saw a 75% collapse in the share price as Flybe announced that it was talking about a potential sale. Subsequently, the Connect Airways consortium acquired the business, which included Virgin Atlantic and Stobart Aviation, with £100m of new funding provided to support the business.

Flybe announced plans to be rebranded as Virgin Connect, but in January 2020, it emerged that Flybe was again in difficulties, and a deal was reached on 15 January, entailing a deferred payment for Flybe’s Air Passenger Duty debts and increased funding from Connect Airways.

As of 28 January 2020, Flybe operated 36% of all UK domestic flights, but on 5 March, they filed for administration and ceased all operations with immediate effect after the Government failed to grant a proposed £100m bailout loan. Virgin Atlantic refused to continue financial support despite its investment of £135m, and placed part of the blame on the negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Flybe’s trading.

Was Flybe too ambitious? For the past fifteen years Flybe has been trying to join the big boys of aviation and failing. The serious push came when it raised money with an IPO, and set out a plan to become Europe’s biggest regional airline, flying mid-sized planes between secondary cities. The model works brilliantly in America, where regional airlines, often flying as franchises of the larger network carriers, are a large and thriving business.

It did not work – or at least Flybe did not make it work. It retrenched, and was left in the farcical situation of paying for a fleet of aircraft that it could not fly. The remaining network was still too big, and cash resources dwindled.

So what are the elements of the Flybe business model that ultimately caused its failure, and what can startups learn from their mistakes?

1. Operating a market niche made it vulnerable Flybe dominated the regional UK market, so it was particularly exposed to anything that went wrong in this market – the recent fall in demand prompted by the coronavirus outbreak just added to its list of woes. It already had to contend with storms disrupting travel and the effects of Brexit creating sluggish UK consumer spending. The weak pound following the Referendum also worsened the impact of increased fuel and aircraft leasing costs.

Lesson: don’t put all your eggs in one basket; don’t get complacent when you have dominant market share, take a counter view of inherent vulnerability to apparent strength.

2. It operated in a highly competitive market Aviation is a highly competitive industry at the best of times, saddled with high-cost assets, and key costs that fluctuate uncontrollably – mainly fuel, which accounts for around a third of total airline costs. On top of that, they face high regulatory costs. The UK is particularly competitive, with Flybe squeezed between major airlines such as British Airways and the big low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet.

Lesson: Always keep a keen eye on your cost base when focused on a high-growth strategy, revenues can often not hit targets or market share be impacted by external margin pressures out of your control.

3. Flybe paid more tax than other airlines Airlines have to pay Air Passenger Duty (APD), a tax per passenger on flights taking off in the UK. For international flights, APD only has to be paid on the route out of the country, but for journeys within the UK, APD is paid both on departure and arrival. The levy is thought to have cost Flybe more than £100m a year, something it had long complained about. The government was considering adjusting the APD and helping Flybe.

Lesson: There are often specific compliance costs or costs of entry into a market, which should be recognised as a harsh burden on the business model, hitting your competitive agility, and factored into your day-to-day thinking.

4. It had too many planes A decade ago, Flybe had ambitious pan-European plan, placing an £850m order for 35 Embraer 175 jets to underpin its expansion. But for years after that it struggled with overcapacity. Flybe ended up putting planes on routes to use the planes, rather than buying a fleet to fly routes effectively. It was a burden, in reality it really was too big for what it’s trying to do.

Flybe’s overcapacity showed it needed to operate smaller aircraft over a slimmer network, and maybe switch its focus to concentrate on the corporate market and forget about endless retail seat sales at peppercorn prices. This would mean higher fares but hopefully a better quality, repeatable customer model.

Lesson: A relentless focus on charging forward can blindside the downside risks and adverse long-term impact of short-term errors. Don’t be blinkered by growth-for-growth’s sake, take a balanced view of opportunity versus risk.

5. There were conflicting shareholder objectives The takeover by the Connect Airways consortium failed because the partners had conflicting objectives and were strange bedfellows. Virgin was eager to feed its long-haul flights at Heathrow, and perhaps snaffle along the way some of Flybe’s valuable Heathrow slots, whilst Stobart was eager to keep regional flights at its main asset, Southend Airport.  The third partner, Cyrus, was a VC and thought it might make money if the business was resuscitated. None of these were compatible with each other

Lesson: Ensure there is genuine compatibility and alignment of vision, purpose and strategy with your co-founders. Never let financial metrics convince you a long-term arrangement has merit, it simply masks the underlying paradoxes.

6. The pricing strategy must support the business model Coronavirus hastened its collapse, but Flybe’s pricing policy was flawed. For any form of travel, the operator with the fastest service generally charges the most. That used to be the case before the arrival of low-cost airlines, when domestic flying was considered a luxury. In Flybe’s case, although it held a monopoly over most of its mainland domestic routes, it was undercutting rail fares sometimes by as much as 50% – because the travelling public compared the cost of flying with surface transport.

However, at the same time as average fares have fallen, squeezing margins and leaving no room for mistakes, Flybe was posting annual losses of £20m.

Lesson: Price on purpose, and price for profit. After a period of entry pricing to gain new market share in a new segment, your value proposition has to fit around the competition and your business model. Don’t kid yourself demand v supply rules don’t apply.

7. Poor customer experience They had a mad hand baggage policy. I had a bag that was 5mm bigger than their cabin baggage guide at the gate. They charged £30 to check it in and, of course, I had to wait 45 minutes to get it back at the other end. The published dimensions of my hardsided case were within the Flybe size limits. I resolved never to fly it Flybe again and never did.

Lesson: Think about the critical non-essentials that can have an out-size adverse impact on the customer experience. Convenience, simplicity and ease-of-use are great customer experience virtues – introduce friction and it all unravels.

8. Dysfunctional culture Flybe acquired many rival’s routes, aircraft and staff and took many franchises into its brand, but wasn’t successful at integrating firms with different work cultures. Even though they were successful at operational integration of small companies, it failed to merge different work cultures.

High attrition rate in its work force compared to other organisations in the industry resulted in it having to spend a lot more than its competitors on training and development of its employees.

Lesson: Creating a diverse and inclusive workplace culture is vital as you scale a startup, ensuring there is a vibrant underlying set of values and philosophy that enables your business to build internally, besides fuelling external growth.

All of the above were factors before coronavirus came along, combining to trigger Flybe’s demise. They were not even able to maintain good revenues on unique routes. Flybe failed because it forgot what its core business was and an over ambitious strategy expanded it beyond it viable economic model.

Startups beware. The adrenalin of growth and soaring ambition can cloud your judgement and blindside some key signs that your model isn’t as unique as you expect.

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful.

Optimism is key, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which does not kill us makes us stronger. A willingness to stumble during a quest gives the motivation to spur us onto success against all odds in the first place, so don’t let failure remove your spark, but embracing failure to encourage entrepreneurship is misguided. Keep an open mind as you build your startup strategy, and always be agile, alert and vigilante – euphoria, ego and complacency are virus-like killers to your startup business model.

Don’t develop a fetish for failure: triage your startup

The term ‘post-mortem’ is Latin for ‘after death’, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any ‘after the fact’ analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it.

Such analyses are have been going on for a long time. Five thousand years ago Egyptian doctors recorded wounds, treatments and results to build up a body of knowledge about what did and did not work. Military strategists have long studied every battle ever recorded so that they could learn lessons without having to suffer defeats.

The post-mortem is focused on understanding what we did wrong and historically (and perhaps psychologically), failure has proven to be one of our best teachers. ‘Failure’ has become an integral part of the startup community vocabulary, where we have the mantra ‘fail fast’ as a way of learning and making quick changes to find product/market fit.

Indeed ‘fail early, fail often’ has become something of a startup badge of honour that makes it sound like it’s a good thing, but I struggle with the cultural fascination with failure being the source of lessons to be learned. Pause for a moment, what did you really learn?

You learned what didn’t work. So, ‘we all learn from our mistakes’ – you’d like to think that was the case, so you won’t make the same mistake twice, but isn’t it the case that you’re just as likely to make a different mistake next time? As Jason Fried said, You might know what won’t work, but you still don’t know what will work. That’s not much of a lesson.

Making mistakes isn’t part of a scalable startup model. So if we accept that learning from failure is overrated, how can turn the ‘it’s good to fail’ philosophy on its head into a new way of thinking? Surely the most valuable experience to take your startup to the next level is learning from the stuff you got right? Isn’t this just about taking what you’ve done that others don’t have, and creating further advantage from it?

The common sense is overwhelming. If you’re starting a new venture, going into it believing it’s going to work has to be your mindset. You don’t have to assume you’ve got to collect pain points along the way as the necessary badges, failure being a prerequisite of success. Don’t believe your first idea won’t be your best one, and don’t accept that your credibility is only enhanced because of collecting the scars of failure to parade to others.

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful. Failing is an overstated hobby, another glorification in the dictionary of entrepreneurial hyperbole.

So let’s pause, and if the startup patient is in intensive care, rather than thinking about startup funerals, wakes and autopsies, lets focus on survival, and determine the priority of startup patient fixes and treatments based on the severity of their condition, and that can halt the terminal decline. Let’s talk about startup triage.

Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of their condition. The term originated during the Napoleonic Wars from the work of Dominique Jean Larrey. Those responsible for the removal of the wounded from a battlefield or their care afterwards would divide the victims into three categories:

  • Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive;
  • Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.

So, what are the most common causes of startup failure, and what are the triage priorities? Here are some thoughts.

Triage 1: Start for purpose, don’t start for money Check Simon Sinek’s classic TED talk on ‘finding your why’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPYeCltXpxw If you set out simply to make headlines motivated by success equating to money made, you’re setting yourself up for business failure. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

Triage 2: Define what success looks like If success is defined as becoming a unicorn, winning awards or an IPO, it is a skewed measure of success. It’s barely what really defines success for most entrepreneurs. How about making your mark with customers, sustainable growth, loving your work, and making a dent in your universe?

Triage 3: Don’t assume, find a need Just because your mum, your best friend, and your dog think that your idea and business model is cool, doesn’t mean that you have a valid business. Move quickly to get a MVP to test on real potential customers. Get worthwhile feedback, tweak your product and model as needed, and repeat this process until you find what truly works. Work hard, work smart, that’s my strategy. Avoid the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome and vanity metrics.

Triage 4: Nail it, then scale it Via your MVP, find your formula for solving the problem, figure out your ‘secret sauce’ and scale, but don’t scale until you find your formula first. You need to ensure you have product-market fit, and that there is a sizeable market to sustain your business model. Asking questions to define the problem comes before you build your full product.

Triage 5: Take control of your emotions A startups leader’s feelings are contagious, so you need to be genuinely in control of your emotions or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality in a startup, no matter what the situation. Lead with confidence and calmness, avoid getting too elated or too despondent on the highs and lows.

Triage 6: Know when to value speed vs. stability Developing great tech, content and a team simultaneously takes time. You try to make each deep and stable, but also need to be agile and pivot. I agree with Reid Hoffman that if you review your first product version and don’t feel embarrassment, you’ve spent too much time on it. On the other hand, keeping all aspects of your startup aligned for growth is a real challenge.

Triage 7: Control and calculate your user acquisition costs Many startups initially conceive of marketing as a creative exercise. That’s partly true, but the best marketing is controlled and calculated. If you know how much it costs to acquire a user and you control the process, you then know how much capital and revenue you need, reducing your marketing plan from fuzzy guesswork to a clean formula.

Triage 8: Don’t Move Slow. Move Fast Moving at a snail’s pace can be detrimental, losing advantage in terms of getting to customers first, and it can deplete your motivation. Be sure to move fast, but not so fast that you lose attention to detail. Find a pace that you can work within that allows you to make smart decisions while also moving your business forward.

There are some talented entrepreneurs who fail first time, learn and then succeed second time round, but we generalise from anecdotal success-after-failure stories. There is a lot of startup folklore and myth out there. Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change your business model.

We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need to realise is, however, success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.

There will be a moment when you will be dejected in fulfilling your startup dreams and melancholy thoughts will haunt you, they will try to restrict you. But, if you have a robust will and determination about yourself then no matter what happens, you will conquer the difficult moments in your startup life. There have been myriads of successful people who have faced brick walls throughout their journey, but they have exceptionally pulled it off. There should be determination, an optimistic approach towards life and no matter, what life throws at you, just stand up and fight.

Yes, starting a business is hard, and you certainly could fail. I’m not suggesting failure isn’t an option, I’m only suggesting that it shouldn’t be the assumed or default outcome. It doesn’t need to be. Have confidence in your ideas, in your vision, and in your business. Assume success, not failure.

Everything is a learning experience, good and bad, there’s something to be added to your thinking. But all learning isn’t equal. I’ve found that if you’re going to spend your time pondering the past, focus on the wins not the losses. The lessons learned from doing well give you a better chance at continuing your success.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress, which resonate with the forward challenge, we go again.

Adopt the same mindset as a startup founder, don’t look back in anger. Don’t develop a fetish for failure.

The F-word: how Big Me will bounce back

Failure. We’re hypocrites about it. You find scores of pleasant aphorisms celebrating the inevitability of failure of underdogs and entrepreneurs, their determination to come fighting back and the importance of learning from it, but in real life failure is painful.

I had enough of the F-word last week, it wasn’t a good week. Burnley got relegated from the Premiership, the outcome of the General Election left me utterly depressed and I failed my grade five saxophone exam by two marks after I fluffed the sight reading piece. Suffice to say I played Joy Division and Radiohead tracks back to back on Sunday to lighten my mood.

So, I need to confront the F-word taboo this week and build some agile thinking into my routine. Failure is inevitable sometimes and often out of our control, but we can choose to understand it, to learn from it, and to recover from it. No one likes to fail, and while we all know the importance of learning from mistakes, individuals, teams and organisations can struggle to bounce back. How can we see the experience as an opportunity for growth instead of the kiss of death or shattering our dreams?

In his 1950 film Rashomon, the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa depicts the story of a rape and murder four times, from the perspectives of four characters. The message is clear- different people can see the same events in dramatically different ways – and this phenomenon is particularly evident when it comes to failure.

An outcome that an employee regards as satisfactory may be seen by her manager as entirely unacceptable. When a project is an unequivocal flop, colleagues disagree over the reasons why. These reactions, and their effect on workplace relationships, often become more problematic than the original event. As a result, how people respond to failure is of great importance. It’s often harder to lead a team past a failure than it is to help one person. Some people may be very resilient and others might feel more bruised.

Not all failures are created equal, so an understanding of failure’s causes and contexts will help to avoid the blame game and institute an effective strategy for learning from failure. Although an infinite number of things can go wrong in organisations, mistakes fall into three broad categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent:

Preventable failures in predictable operations Most failures in this category can indeed be considered ‘bad’, they usually involve deviations from a defined process or routine operation. With proper training and support, employees can follow those processes consistently. When they don’t, deviance, inattention, or lack of ability is usually the reason.

Unavoidable failures in complex systems A large number of failures are due to the inherent uncertainty of work in that a particular combination of issues may have never occurred before. Triaging patients in a hospital emergency room, responding to enemy actions on the battlefield, or running a fast-growing tech start-up all occur in unpredictable situations where system failure is a perpetual risk.

Intelligent failures at the frontier Failures in this category can be considered ‘good’ because they provide valuable new knowledge that can help an organisation leap ahead and ensure its future growth – which is why they are sometimes called ‘intelligent’ failures. They occur when experimentation is necessary, so discovering new drugs, designing an innovative product, and testing customer reactions in a brand-new market are tasks that require intelligent failures – in essence it’s about discovery and ‘trial and error’.

At the frontier, the right kind of experimentation produces good failures quickly and you can avoid the unintelligent failure of conducting experiments at a larger scale than necessary. Tolerating unavoidable process failures in complex systems and intelligent failures at the frontiers of knowledge won’t promote mediocrity. Indeed, tolerance of these failures is essential for any organisation that wishes to extract the knowledge such failures provide.

But putting the type of failure to one side, as a leader of an organisation, how do you face up to your team at the point of failure? How do you dust yourself and your team down, and go again? Here are some thoughts.

First, take control of your own emotions Research shows that a leader’s feelings are far more contagious than a team member’s so do whatever you need to move on from the disappointment yourself so that you’re ready to help your team deal with their crisis recovery. You need to be genuinely in control of your feelings or your team will see through you. Mental toughness is a key leadership quality at a time of failure

Give them space At the same time, you shouldn’t become a ‘beacon of positivity’ before the team is ready. It’s okay to let everyone wallow in negative feelings for a little while before saying ‘Let’s move on’. When you acknowledge the disappointment – with comments like ‘This is tough for us all’ – you’re not just stroking people’s emotions you’re facilitating a critical appraisal of the situation.

Be clear about what went wrong Don’t cover up what happened or resort to simple dismissive comments that abdicate responsibility. Avoid phrases like ‘let’s look on the bright side’, instead, be clear – ‘We didn’t get the result we wanted because they were more talented than us’. When you focus on the facts, you can call it like it is without being demotivating.

Don’t point fingers It’s more important to focus on what’s to blame, rather than who is to blame. If the fault really does lie with one person or a few people, then talk to those individuals in private and focus on their actions, not character, something like: ‘Here’s the mistake you made. It doesn’t mean you’re not in the team, but we need to understand why so it doesn’t happen again and we can move on’. You can also address the group but be sure to do it in a way that doesn’t single anyone out.

Shift the mood At some point it’s also important to move on from analysing the failure to talking about what comes next. The mutual commiserating and examination of what went wrong is useful only up to a point, then pushing the team to look forward and be more strategic, open-minded thinking and discussing how you will avoid similar mistakes in the future. Ensure the tone is positive and energised.

The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, yet organisations that do it well are extraordinarily rare. This is not due to a lack of commitment to learning, but the lack of a learning culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with, and responsible for, facing up to and learning from failures.

Paradoxically, people feel psychologically safer when leaders are clear about what acts are blameworthy – and there must be consequences – but if someone is punished or fired, tell those directly and indirectly affected what happened and why it warranted blame.

Optimism is key, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, That which does not kill us makes us stronger, after all, isn’t it the lack of fear of failure, a willingness to stumble during a quest, that gives the motivation to spur us onto success against all odds in the first place? Don’t let failure remove your spark, but having said that, embracing failure to encourage entrepreneurship is misguided.

Failure should not be celebrated, yet there is a macho cult of failure at times surrounding entrepreneurship. Accepting that failure is a natural part of doing business, and developing the right perspective on its value, will help fix the fear of failure. But having said that, having done the post-mortem on the analysis of failure, how do you then bounce back from failure and turn it into a success? Here are some thoughts about ‘bounce-back-ability’:

Define success on your own terms Failure is a subjective term, so why pin your sense of self-worth to something that hasn’t happened as you wanted it to? Success is how high you bounce back having hit the bottom. You should not be okay with average. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

Find the value in failure I could give you all types of statistics for entrepreneurs that eventually succeeded after abundant failures, and it’s not only about monetary success, but about personal success, bouncing back and continuing to move forward on the path that makes you happy.

Act on what you’ve learned Anything can be useful if we learn from it and then do something with that knowledge. We know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Alas there is no magical formula for telling us what to keep doing and what to do differently. We have to gauge for ourselves what’s working and where we could improve and then we have to keep going, knowing full well there are no guarantees.

Focus on the process, not the results Just because you didn’t reach a specific outcome, that doesn’t mean you can’t still do what you’d like to do. It’s not over just because you didn’t hit one specific outcome. If you keep going, you will inevitably identify new possibilities – adopting a process-oriented approach means it is easier to be mindful and focus on the action steps.

Stay Positive Keep your self-belief and keep your eyes open, you will inevitably see opportunities when the mist clears. It’s the difference between walking with your head held high reaching for the sky and walking with your gaze on your feet and seeing only puddles.

Find opportunities in adversity I forget where I recently read this story, but a young boy was looking to get a job. Everywhere he went, he heard they weren’t hiring, so he decided to set a new goal: for each company he visited, he would either get a job or sell them a “Not hiring” sign which he would make.

Failure is an opportunity to try again through revised eyes, but it should never stop you trying because you’re afraid to do so – reflect, learn, go again. Failure is a signpost alerting you to the fact that you need to change course, or you’re not ready yet. Failure is not thinking you’ve failed, rather that you need to go better next time.

We all want to feel free to try, stumble, fall, get back up, try again, and learn as we go. What we need is also the same – to realise success isn’t about getting where you want to be, rather it’s about accepting and appreciating where you are at each point.

Whilst we want to be positive and optimistic, there are times when life doesn’t go according to plan and we get disappointed – last week showed me that. The challenge is to ensure that the impacts of our disappointments are minimal and to bounce back as quickly as possible whilst still acknowledging the let-down and not living in denial.

I read an interesting blog by James Clear (http://jamesclear.com/), which inspired me. It talks about the two identities we all have – Big Me and Little Me. Big Me is the version of you that comes out when you’re at your best, the identity you display when you live up to your potential, and achieve your goals. Big Me is who you are when you’re fully engaged in life rather than partially engaged. Big Me is you on top of your game.

On the other hand, Little Me is the version of yourself that shows up when you’re inconsistent, when you lack focus, and when you fall short of your potential. Little Me is that side of you that makes excuses and hesitates when faced with uncertainty or discomfort, and sulks in the pool of failure.

Here’s the thing about Big Me and Little Me – they are not different people, they are two versions of the same person and these two versions of yourself compete to show up on any given day. So what makes the difference?

We all have good days every now and then, days when we feel motivated, productive, powerful, and healthy. But having a good day every day is really hard. What makes the difference between the days when you show up as the Big Me version of yourself versus the Little Me version of yourself? It’s all about choosing your attitude, do you kick-start or sit-back?

For me, keep pushing yourself forward and maintain your enthusiasm for life is the answer – to quote Winston Churchill, Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. For me, maximum effort is the minimum requirement, I simply keep going, being relentless, being limitless, but not simply doing the same thing as last time. Failure is an experiment that had an outcome, just one you didn’t want.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. Rousing words from President Abraham Lincoln, taken from his 1862 annual address to Congress. I’ve written it on a post-it-note and pinned it to my study wall. Just like Burnley and the Labour Party, I’ll bounce back, with agile thinking, clumsy fingers and the need for more practice won’t stop Big Me passing that saxophone exam again.