“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” – Paulo Coehlo.
The Internet is full of beautiful quotes like this one, and the stories about failure on the road to success are plentiful.
- Abraham Lincoln failed in his business in 1831, and suffered from a nervous breakdown in 1836.
- One of Walt Disney’s earlier ventures, Laugh-o-Gram Studios, went bankrupt due to his lack of ability to run a successful business.
- Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and co-owned a business called Traf-o-Data which was a true failure.
We’ve all heard one or the other versions of these truly inspiring stories of failure and innovation.
Yet, what really bugs me is that most of the featured stories about failure are attributed to wildly successful people. Have you ever noticed how these ‘failure’ stories are always in reference to these pop-icons?
Is it a legitimate story of failure, if it’s told retrospectively by people who are wealthy or famous or both?
Or is it survivorship bias?
Humans Are Wired Against Failure
The very fact that almost all of our failure stories that we celebrate widely are the stories of successful people, shows that we have a tendency to skew reality in favor of success.
Most humans – especially the business class – is wired to avoid failure.
Which is why, even when we are looking for failure stories, we tend to look at the failure of successful people, and not the unsuccessful ones.
It’s justifiable that when we are teaching children, we often hold up the stories of successful people as examples to learn from. However, we are not children. They operate in an environment where the stakes are much, much lower. They are (generally) not required to support a family, keep their jobs or pay bills. In the adult world, we need to accept that we have a lot more to learn from the failure stories of unsuccessful people, than from successful ones – even if it means to beat down our internalized programming that’s got us wired against failure.
Setting up an open mind to learn from unsuccessful people prepares you for what you’re up against. You know you need to innovate to keep your business growing and you know your people will fail on the way to greatness. But not everyone reading this piece is a startup. Perhaps you work in a well-established organization where your culture probably does not value and celebrate failure.
And your people know it; their bodies and their brains know it.
Their experience in the working world has reinforced the notion that “failure” gets you fired, or, at least, that it is not a career-enhancing move.
This thought spreads through the entire ecosystem in which your operate, and quickly it becomes a collective mindset that starts curbing at innovation – just because people become impatient with a lack of quality outcomes in innovation labs, so emphasize the need for high-quality work instead of being patient for the innovative work to be birthed over several cycles of failure.
Failure is a Spectrum
You see, not all failure is the same.
Some are good. Some are bad. Some are great.
Most business owners and corporate leaders think that there are only two possible outcomes to any innovation. Success. Or Failure.
The truth is, failure is not a dual phenomenon. It’s more like a spectrum.
Like the rainbow, there are several shades to it. The spectrum of failure could either be good or bad or great.
Great failure is the kind that comes with important learning. It’s focused on factual evidence, and not philosophical debate. Anyone who has ever tried building or cooking something new is familiar with this kind of failure.
Bad failure comes from shoddy work. It is the result of going with your whimsical fancies and mood-swings, instead of logical testing and obtaining factual evidence. Demanding or trying to extract revenue on the day one of your innovation, or getting too greedy, without putting in proportional work, leads to bad failure.
Somewhere between these two zones is good failure. It’s the one where ideas are experimented with, and assumptions are tested, but not accurately enough to enable innovation. Or perhaps having the current innovation simply as an alternative to something else, thus putting in divided attention.
So yes, not all failure is the same. At the same time, remember that not all failure is desirable. Differentiating between good, great and bad failure before setting out is essential.
Great Innovation Requires Failure
Great Innovation requires failure.
But wait. You already knew that.
This is not a huge revelation. That’s perhaps the most beaten down, over-used and cliched topic that there is.
Ever since you were a child, you have been told how okay and cool it is to fail. You’ve heard several times that in order to succeed, you need to fail fast, fail forward and fail often. Which goes to prove the what I said at the beginning of this post: Humans are wired against failure.
So much so knowing in principle that failure is necessary, still doesn’t make it easier for humans to accept!
If you are C-level executive or a business owner, this truth is especially important for you to encourage innovation. Remember that simply saying ‘yes’ once to an innovative idea, doesn’t mean you or your business is fully, mentally prepared for the sense of impatience, frustration and even recklessness that most innovations can trigger.
Demystifying failure can reduce failure phobia, and spike innovation. This starts with being as rigorous about exploring any fears surrounding failure as you are about setting goals.
No matter what is being said publicly, most business owners and executives revile failure and revere success.
However, failure is necessary to innovate. And in the corporate setting, fear of failure is heightened, and can end up choking innovation to death.
Do not treat innovation like business.Provide realistic time frames, especially for studying the problem in depth. Don’t rush to solutions. Avoid innovating just to innovate. Rather, have a measurable goal that you can drive toward.
And remember: don’t confuse shoddy work with desirable failure. As with anything else, doing low-quality work and ending up with problems that could have been avoided are not desirable, no matter what the situation.
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