Different Types of Failures

Failures come in more than one flavor. Here is how to get the most out of them.

The recent stories of middle-aged weekend warriors attempting to climb Everest and perishing in the  process made me think a lot about failure and planning for it. And I think there are lessons to learn here for entrepreneurs.

If you want to summit a peak you need to accept that you may fail to do so. And that you may even perish in the process. Conversely, if you start an ambitious business, your business may fail spectacularly.

As entrepreneurs it is non-controversial (cliché, even) that we need to embrace failure. Failure is inevitable if you innovate, if you take risks, if you move fast. At the frontier- as in the high mountains –  you take two steps upwards, one step down.

However – and this position has gotten me in trouble before, but stay with me – not all failures are created equally. And much too often, as we embrace and interiorize the inevitability of failure, we ignore the fact that some failures can be avoided and others can be mitigated with a bit of planning.

Basically, if you freeze to death on the way to the peak because you didn’t bring a sleeping bag, that is a very different type of failure from, say, having to turn back because the path has been cut by an avalanche. I have to remind myself of this often, as I am not above messing up and then rationalizing the whole thing with the “failure is good” mantra.


Years ago, I put together a simple failure framework for my team. The topic has been written about exhaustively so this probably doesn’t break any new ground. Still it is something I often go back to so why not share it, recycled as it may be.

The Failure Spectrum

There is a whole spectrum of failures, some of which are unavoidable and highly educational, while others are avoidable and lack in any meaningful learning potential.

If you find yourself at dawn in the high mountains without a sleeping bag, you’re not learning anything useful. You basically ignored common knowledge/ common sense.

The best failures provide valuable new insights or perspectives that can help us leap ahead. These failures occur around experimentation: when answers are not knowable in advance because an exact situation hasn’t been encountered before. This is the innovator’s territory. When you are at the frontier, “Trial and error” is the way to go.

However, embracing failure also means we should be prepared to fail. We need to have a plan B and a plan C. Redundancies. Simple processes. (checklists!).  

Not being prepared to fail is a the biggest failure of all.

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