Fortunately, failure is your best learning opportunity

Fortunately? Absolutely; failure is central to humanity.  Failure is your best learning opportunity if you can see it in the right way.  As children, almost every one of us failed in most everything we first tried to do:

  • We fell back the first time we tried to stand up.
  • Our first attempt at speech was little more than gibberish.
  • For many of us, first-year algebra, science 101, and even entire grades required more than one attempt before we ultimately succeeded.

We have a lot more failure from which to learn than we do success, So let’s not waste all that valuable experience.  (Still don’t see how failure is your best learning opportunity? How many of you reading this are happily married after one or more failed marriages?)   So I thought I’d share what I believe to be the one professional failure in my life that taught me way more than all the others. My best mistake, and my best learning opportunity. 

A failure to communicate

I joined Pioneer Electronics, then one of the Japanese consumer electronic audio/video giants, in the late ’70s. By 1980, I had become Senior VP of Marketing and Product Development for the US. I spent 6 years with Pioneer. While there and after, my career was and continues to be rewarding. However, given the chance, there are things I would do differently. When it comes to Pioneer, nothing more than undoing my failure to sufficiently understand and adapt to the culture I was to work within.

Pioneer’s Japanese manufacturing management, me, and my staff had endless product planning meetings in the US and Japan. At those meetings, we spent countless hours discussing product plans. A typical response to our latest product request would often be, “Bill-san, we will study”.  This would be followed soon after by Japan sending us a product they, not us, had wanted all along.

Realizing this, I redoubled my efforts to make clear that what we requested was the right thing to do. I inundated them with data. Insisting we get a clear understanding of what they would send us. No more accepting a polite “Bill-san, we will study”, which I knew to be code for “We’ll do what we want.”

We were both working for the best interest of Pioneer, however, I didn’t recognize our interaction for what it was: a cultural conflict between them (Japanese men, mostly older than me, who worked for the parent company) and me (a much younger American employee of a Pioneer subsidiary.)  I missed what they did not; I worked for them. It was me who needed to adapt to their company culture, not the other way around.

The birth of Yamārashi-san!

All this was much bigger than just Pioneer. I did not appreciate the nuances of personal and professional business culture within a homogenous population, living in a relatively small geographic area. A population that only prospered because its citizens willingly subjugated their individuality for the good of the group as a whole. If they were willing to accept group leadership, which they were, they expected me to do the same.

To make matters worse, being an American, I did not shrink from confrontation. I was always up for debate, insisting my Japanese counterparts offer proof for what they believed we should do. Consequently, many of our discussions ended in argument; an outcome no consensus decision-making Japanese felt comfortable with.

Soon after I learned my new nickname, given to me by my Japanese friends, was Yamārashi-san. Mr Porcupine.

Regardless of my ability to produce, my worth and value to Pioneer were severely depleted, my enjoyment of my work along with it. What was for a short time win/win became lose/lose, and as a result, Pioneer and I both successfully moved on to better times.

Lessons for you from My Best Mistake

It’s hard for me to imagine my career having gone better than it has, but that’s in spite of my failure to understand the importance of culture during my time at Pioneer. I’ve often wondered, how much better could things have been for both Pioneer and me had I known then what I know now?

So who was right, who was wrong?  Few things are black and white, this included, however, this I know for certain. It was up to me to understand and operate within their culture, not the reverse.

Lest you think otherwise, you don’t need to work in another country to experience what I did. You will encounter cultural differences, one company to the next, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, experience, education, language, age, gender, or any other of the seemingly unlimited things that go into defining “culture”.

Learn all you can about what that culture is and in doing so you will contribute to its natural evolutionary change, becoming a part of it in the process.

And if you find you can’t do that, move on to something better suited to who you are.

William Matthies founded Coyote Insight in 2000 to help start-ups as well as established companies and brands plan for profitable growth.

In 1986 he founded what was to become the largest independent market research/database marketing company in the consumer electronics and high tech fields. By the time he sold The Verity Group in 1997, the company employed 400+ people at its California and Costa Rica offices.

Today he serves on corporate advisory boards lecturing frequently at industry events around the world on managing change, strategic planning, and customer relations.

William’s spare time is spent seeking out experiences that change his perspective, while at the same time having great fun. A few years ago, he visited Russia for a Mach 2.5 flight in a MiG 25 supersonic aircraft flying to 80,000 feet, the edge of space. Want details? Contact him, he’ll be happy to tell you about it!