What Executives Know About Making Failures Drive Success

A panel of past Chicago Innovation Awards honorees spoke at Threadless about lessons they’ve learned from failure. (Gregory Rothstein photo)

Just accept it: Failure is going to be part of your success story.

Of course, not everyone chooses to call it that anymore.

“The concept of the word failure is certainly outdated, the way people used to think of it. I think the way most now think about it, especially in the software space, is iteration,” Dan Michelson, CEO of Strata Decision Technology, said Thursday. “Our life is about versions. Everything is the next version that’s coming.”

He spoke as part of a panel of past Chicago Innovation Awards honorees at Threadless, where a group of executives discussed lessons learned from failure.

Alex Balestrieri, director of events at Redmoon Theater, addressed the high­profile flop of his organization’s $2 million production of the Great Chicago Fire Festival last fall.

“It was a big failure, and it was positioned at the point of the event where it was the most public,” he said. “We were as disappointed to be in that position as anyone.”

Still, the production will be back this year, with Chicago students from the After School Matters program involved.

“There will be another Great Chicago Fire Festival, and you will see community performers highlighted, and you will see Chicago celebrated to the best of our ability,” Balestrieri said. “And we have a new pyro team.”

Gerry Kern, senior vice president and editor at Chicago Tribune, said turnarounds require a degree of risk taking.

“Having the sand washed out from underneath your feet made it essential that you take risks,” he said. “You don’t take uninformed risks; you have to have some rigor and discipline around what you choose to do. But you can’t know everything in advance.”

Lily Yeung, director of corporate strategic business development at Molex, credits the company’s resistance to skimp on research and development costs ­­ even in lousy times ­­ in keeping the Lisle­based connectors and switches maker competitive.

“We have a tendency to always invest the same amount into our R&D regardless of what the financials of the market look like. Even during financial crisis, we were still investing 6 or 7 percent of our revenue into R&D,” she said. “That has allowed us the ability to bounce back as the market comes back. This has given us the competitive edge.”

Cheryl V. Jackson is a freelance writer.