Mindful Metrics

The KPIs of failure

The KPIs of failure

Few words have reinvigorated their brand the way “failure” has in the past few years.

Failure was once synonymous with negativity. Now it’s acknowledged as an integral building block of success.

Everyone from CEOs such as Amazon's Jeff Bezos to thought leaders such as Simon Sinek are extolling the virtues of failure.

The question then becomes: if failure is so important, why don’t we measure it?

In this post, I’ll delve into the factors you should consider when generating KPIs that measure failure.

failure meme

Measure failure? Really?

Yes! Failure is many things. But more than anything it’s a sign of ambition.

Cue that old saying often attributed to Wayne Gretzky:

"You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

For this, and the many other quotes about failure you’ll find on the internet, the evangelism of failure is an effort to overcome the stigma associated with the word.

Example: Writing this blog post. Even though I had a good idea of what I wanted to say, the words didn’t just spring forth from my brain to my fingertips in one swift motion.

I deleted. I changed. I rewrote.

I tried and tried and tried until it ended up looking like what I wanted it to. There were many failures along the way. In fact, as it I look back at this post, it was built on a series of seemingly infinite little failures.

The pessimist in me might look at this and say: "You should have just gotten it right in the first place so you wouldn't have wasted so much time!"

But this sort of thinking masks a fact we rarely confront: failure is a given.

If I am trying to accomplish something, I acknowledge from the beginning that reaching my goal won’t be a straight line. There will be setbacks and frustrations; these are signs of effort.

Look at it this way: you’re going to fail, regardless. The sooner you get failure out of the way the closer you are to reaching your goal.

quote about failure

OK, maybe failure’s not as bad as it seems. But should we really be measuring it with key performance indicators?

If failure is a sign of effort, then it makes total sense to measure it with KPIs. In fact, some say we should even be aiming for failure.

Creative nonfiction writer Kim Liao, to take an example from one particularly talented writer, says she aims for 100 rejection letters per year.

“My vulnerable ego only wants to be loved and accepted, to have my words ring out from a loudspeaker in Times Square while a neon ticker scrolls the text across a skyscraper, but it’s a big old coward,” she wrote in an essay.

“Perhaps aiming for rejection, a far more attainable goal, would take some of the sting out of this ego-bruising exercise—which so often feels like an exercise in futility.”

Don’t get me wrong. Success is, in nearly every sense of the term, a good thing. This idea isn’t complicated. The very word implies that you have accomplished what you set out to do.

But success also carries with it an opportunity cost—you miss out on an opportunity to learn from failure. What did I do wrong? How can I correct it for next time? What did I take away from this experience?

What are some good KPIs for failure?

This will, like any KPI, depend on what your goal is.

If you’re trying to expand your network, maybe it will mean sending 50 emails for coffee meetings that never get answered.

If you’re in sales, it might mean setting a goal for unanswered cold calls.

If you’re trying to build a career as a writer, it might mean doing as Liao does and shooting for 100 rejection letters each year.

In general, though, it’s best to come up with KPIs for failure that measure your growth in one of the following key areas.

A stepping stone on the road to success

Sometimes failure is inevitable in getting to where you need to go. The sooner you start failing, the sooner you’ll wind up at your goal.

The advice: jump in, strive to let go of the ego, and start failing now. Those first failures, though they may not feel like it at the time, mean you're taking steps on the road to success.

An opportunity to learn

Yes, it’s a cliché that we learn more from our failures than our success, but it’s also true. Failure gives you an opportunity to reassess and readjust, then position yourself for getting it right the next time.

The advice: don't just fail for failure's sake. Conduct project post-mortems, or otherwise carve out the time to reflect on (and even write about) your failures so that you can better position yourself in the future.

A strengthener

Bouncing back from failure builds your resilience. And resilience is what gives you the strength to keep plugging when times get tough.

The advice: Research from Harvard University suggests that resilience results from interactions between internal predispositions and external experiences. Framing failure as an inherent, natural part of success, therefore, can serve as a far healthier starting place than seeing failure as an irreversible catastrophe.

Last thoughts on the KPIs of failure

Aiming for failure is counterintuitive. And it can be easy to get carried away with aiming for failure that has no end goal.

Set some KPIs for failure, and you’ll ensure that you’re monitoring your progress even when the results aren't rainbows and sunshine.

Do you have any good KPIs for failure? Let us know in the comments.

See also: Why KPIs fail

Mark Brownlee is a digital marketing strategist in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He is currently completing his Digital Marketing Certificate from the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.


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