Embrace the risk of failure—but pull the plug when it arrives
For a brief, shining moment, I was the quarterback of a football team. Granted, it was in middle school, but the coach looked at me and saw a kid who was too small to play on the line and too slow to be a receiver or defensive back, so he decided to give me a chance at quarterback—basically through the process of eliminating all the other options.
Growing up in Texas, football is life. Especially in my hometown, where parents held back their sons for a year (or two) so that they would be bigger when they got to high school. A couple of the guys on my 8th grade team were already shaving.
I was an unexceptional football player. I didn’t have the skills necessary to be a standout, and my challenge was compounded by the fact that I had very poor eyesight and couldn’t see the receivers down field.
I quickly came to the realization that I was never going to play in the pros. One day after practice, I gathered my nerve and told the coach that I wanted off the team. In his office, I received what might have been the standard coach’s speech in early 1970s Texas (it was a speech and not a discussion)—that if I quit now, I would be a quitter for the rest of my life. Positive affirmation was not yet a thing.
I believe in “fast failure”—recognize when things are not working out, and quickly pull the plug rather than holding on and hoping that things will change for the better.
I can still remember how nervous I was to tell my father that I was quitting the team because I thought I was letting him down. But I was completely wrong. My father supported my choice and said that I should do what I felt was best. He wasn’t going to judge me. He told me that I would only be a quitter if I allowed myself to be.
I had failed. But I was not a failure. Instead, I found that I enjoyed and was good at tennis. Eventually, I became captain of the high school varsity tennis team and made it to the state tournament. In an alternative universe, I would have sat on the bench in a football uniform for four years.
Life is about taking risks. If you never wanted to fall, you would never have learned how to walk. If you never wanted to have an accident, you would never have learned how to drive. If you never wanted a broken heart, you would never have loved (OK, that may be getting too clichéd).
My point is—nothing is accomplished without taking a chance. Taking a risk means that there is a very good chance that it will end in failure. Our human nature wants to avoid failure because it makes us feel bad or inadequate—not to mention feeling embarrassed.
The problem with failure (which, by definition, means that something doesn’t work) is that it causes you to waste resources—either time, money, health or goodwill. If you keep putting the resources into a program that will not succeed, you are preventing yourself from using these resources for a different project that might be successful.
I believe in “fast failure”—recognize when things are not working out, and quickly pull the plug rather than holding on and hoping that things will change for the better. You need to understand the concept of “sunk costs”—putting more resources into a failing project will not let you recoup the original resources you’ve spent. Sometimes you just must stop.
When you decide to try a new program at your store, or invest in a new business, it is essential to know how you are going to define success and failure. This is different from a business plan, which focuses on the optimistic view (success). You need to clearly understand the minimum you need to accomplish and when you need to achieve it. Know what you must do to avoid failure.
You have opportunities all the time—dedicating shelf space to a new product, trying out new technology, installing a foodservice item or opening a new store. You must try these things to improve and grow your business. But doing so will cost you resources.
Your goal can be whatever you choose: sales, profitability, units sold, customer satisfaction or any other metric. The key is to identify something that can be quantified and measured. You need to know where the goal posts are (to use a football metaphor), and you should not move them unless you have a very clear understanding of what your new goal is.
You also need to know your timeframe. When do you need to accomplish your objective? Set your timeline and keep to it. If you run out of time, move on to something else where you have a better chance of being successful.
We cannot advance without taking risks, and we cannot take risks without sometimes failing. Try new ideas and programs. When they don’t work out, walk away. You may have failed, but you are not a failure.
Published in: Fuel Marketer News Magazine – Spring 2022
Roy Strasburger is CEO of StrasGlobal, a privately held retail consulting, operations and management provider serving the small-format retail industry nationwide. StrasGlobal operates retail locations for companies that don’t have the desire, expertise or infrastructure to operate them.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.