Make Failure Your Secret Weapon [Opinion]

Something this year’s winner of American Vegetable Grower® magazine’s Grower Achievement AwardSM, Alan Jones, said really highlights why he and his wife, Leslie, are doing so well with their farm:

“To be innovative, you have to be willing to fail,” he told me.

I spoke with a few people who have worked with Alan on various trials. They say he will try things others won’t and is willing to share what he learns with others.

Risks and the occasional failure are essential for any company or person to truly succeed. The reason? Those failures usually mean that there are some significant successes, too.

Years ago, I belonged to a writing group that held an annual competition, the Babe Ruth Strike Out Contest. The writer who brought in the most rejection letters from publishers won a decent cash prize.

The idea was that a writer who isn’t getting turned down on a frequent basis also isn’t getting published. And each year, the winner proved this to be true. The writer with the most rejection letters was inevitably the one with the most published poems, articles, or short stories.

That said, embracing failure doesn’t mean you take on any project. You’ve got to vet it, see if it has a chance to improve your company and if the risk-laden end result will be enough of a gain to make it worth the effort.

That’s what Alan Jones does. He takes risks within reason, and there’s a lot of homework being done before he tries out a new method or product.

“We try to do it in a manner that isn’t detrimental to the company,” he said wryly.

As Alan pointed out to me, you get more from risking failure than the occasional success. You gain a deeper understanding of why something works or doesn’t work. You gain experience that makes any future success a lot more likely to stick.

Embrace Risk — Within Reason

The trick is how you manage your risk. How much of your operation do you play with? How many different areas do you experiment with at one time? How do you get your employees on board so that you aren’t squandering your hard-won experience?

When I have worked with garden retailers in the past, I could tell who had a great business and who was struggling by who asked those three questions.

The most successful budgeted taking risks into their business plans. They would allot, say, 5% of the inventory to be wildly experimental, and 15% to building on what took off from the last shipment of experimental products. The remaining 80% were the proven performers.

Those who devoted almost 100% of their inventory to proven performers watched their sales slowly die.

As much as farming and retail differ from each other, you can predict either type of operation’s future health by how owners approach and manage risk and how they learn from their experiments.

I urge you to get together with your management team and think through the biggest challenges you face and come up with different ways you can trial solutions.

Whatever the issue is, from labor to soil health, you’ll find that reasonable risk-taking will give you a better farm in the coming years than the one you currently operate.