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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book review: "Celebrating Failure"


By Terri Schlichenmeyer
by Ralph Heath c.2009, Career Press $14.99 / $20.50 Canada 191 pages
You almost felt a little sorry for him.

You gave one of your employees a project and he screwed up. Not a little, either. No, this was a colossal mistake and you can see that he's mortified, times ten. He's apologized on several occasions and this is fix-able (eventually), but you don't know whether to laugh, fire him, or send him off to a remote work-post in Northern Siberia.

But hold off ...

He won't make that mistake again, will he? And that means he's learned from it. In the new book "Celebrate Failure" by Ralph Heath, you'll see that you should not only expect mistakes in your company, but that you should actually seek them.

For over 30 years, Ralph Heath was the owner of a high-profile ad agency in a small Wisconsin city, and he counted several world-wide corporations on his client list. But because of a "dumb little kid" lesson he learned as a child, Heath had an unusual way of running his business: his employees were celebrated for their failures. Mistakes were not only allowed, they were encouraged.

Heath emboldened his staff to think big in an "idea-friendly environment". Everyone, from creative to sales to Heath himself, was inspired to come up with ideas that might seem risky. Some of the ideas worked, and some of them failed but the latter was never a cause for termination or reprimanding in Heath's company. Failure was seen as a chance to learn what was missing, where the idea went wrong, and what could be done better or right the next time. Even the most "mistake abused" employees were taught that failure was good.

Heath says that you'll get better results from your staff if you understand that quitting is quitting, not failure; you have to finish to fail. Learn to ask for constructive criticism when something goes wrong. Take responsibility. Be willing to "blow things up" and begin again if the situation warrants. Take the word "wait" from your vocabulary. Above all, says Heath, "successes and failures should both be lauded."

I liked this book. It's easy and quick to read, filled with stories that make their point, and you'll even get a few chuckles now and then.

But ...

Author Ralph Heath fails to stay on-topic a lot of the time. Much of this book is about how to treat employees and customers and how to run your business well, which seemed to me to be instruction in avoiding failure, not celebrating it. Nitpicky, yes. And it doesn't make this book any less useful, but it bears noting.

Secondly, I wondered if brazen risk-taking would be warmly embraced in all companies. Although it's not addressed here, "Celebrating Failure" would probably work best at a company whose employees don't have to answer to profit-minded, ultra-conservative shareholders and boards of directors.

Still, if you're looking for a way to energize employees and you have the leeway to do so, this book will make you want to act tomorrow. "Celebrating Failure" is a book you shouldn't fail to read.

-- Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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