Too often we equate the word “failure” with just one level of failure – Hindenburg or Fukushima-level catastrophes where history is altered on a global scale.

But with help, your team can realize that failure comes in many levels, from the mundane – “Honey, I forgot to get milk” – to the serious, but not life-altering failures – like many sports teams – to planned failures like the alpha or beta versions of any software program.

Below we have defined at least 10 levels of failure, and we’re sure there are many more.

10 Levels of Failure

  1. Catastrophic failure
    Failure a scale so vast as to encompass the lives and livelihoods of generations to come. Examples: the meltdowns at Fukushima Dai-1 and Chernobyl; building codes in Haiti before January 2010. Possible future catastrophic fails: asteroids, climate change.
  2. Abject failure
    This failure marks you and you may not ever fully recover from it. People lose their lives, jobs, respect, or livelihoods. Examples: British Petroleum’s Gulf oil spill; mortgage-backed securities.
  3. Start-up failure
    A big bet backed by money and momentum, that wipes out both when the market shifts or the business model hits reality. Examples: Pets.com; Jumo.org; Solyndra LLC
  4. Structural failure
    It cuts – deeply – but it doesn’t permanently cripple your identity or enterprise. Examples: Apple iOS 5 Maps; Windows Vista.
  5. Glorious failure
    Going out in a botched but beautiful blaze of glory – catastrophic but exhilarating. Example: Jamaican bobsled team.
  6. Epic failure
    This is a failure that brings joy to all and perhaps even fame and stardom for the fail succeeder. Examples: Celebrity antics; Youtube videos of people falling down; FAILblog
  7. Common failure
    Everyday instances of screwing up that are not too difficult to recover from. The apology was invented for this category. Examples: oversleeping and missing a meeting at work; forgetting to pick up your kids from school; overcooking the tuna.
  8. Version failure
    Small failures that lead to incremental but meaningful improvements over time. Examples: Linux operating system; evolution.
  9. Predicted failure
    Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see what it is you really need to do more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: the prototype — only by creating imperfect early versions of it can you learn what’s necessary to refine it.
  10. Opportunity Failure
    The failure to take risks that leaves you wanting and is usually associated with sentences that begin with, “I should have…” Examples: Not buying Apple stock in 2006; Not selling Nokia stock in 2010; Not getting off your butt today.

Each of these failure levels offers different lessons and learnings, and requires different strategies for prevention and recovery. At Fail Festivals, participants discuss how proactive management, regular audits, adaptive strategies, and effective leadership can turn failure into success.

Celebrating failure as a mark of leadership and innovation