For the last few years, magazines have made failure romantic, and start-ups love their failure stories. It’s true, there are some great stories out there: at the top of the list is Steve Jobs who was fired from the very company he founded. J.K. Rowling took Harry Potter to 12 publishers; all of them turned her down. Walt Disney filed for bankruptcy in his early twenties.
And there was Bernie Marcus who was the son of a poor Russian cabinetmaker from New Jersey who got fired from his job working at hardware store. With US $2 million in capital, Marcus and a partner went into business and opened a different format store with hangar-size, no-frills outlets, friendly service and a huge selection of products, they called it Home Depot. For Marcus failing was about character building and part of the journey to excellence.
These stories are both motivational and inspirational. Magazines from Fast Company to Harvard Business Review jumped on the bandwagon, selling the message it’s ok, even cool, to fail. Some people take this as a ticket to push bad ideas forward. Sometimes people carry failure as a badge of honor. There was a guy who wanted to join our company; his resume read ‘six times failure, a proud veteran.’ When I asked him whether he had any confidence that he will succeed the next time, he said no. It sounds like Vegas to me. The organizations we design and operate are not agile enough to support smaller experiments and the bigger the company is, the harder it is to bring innovation to the market.
Companies are using the stage-gate approach, taken from product development, to the innovation process, which is a big mistake. They’re also applying the wrong metrics to measure innovation projects. But the fact is failure is a bad thing – if you can avoid it, avoid it. Instead of putting too much focus on those who ‘made it’, and their struggles and resilience, we should be really be focusing on teaching people how to avoid failure in the first place.
The problem is we should not encourage people to fail, but should not penalize them either. We should be encouraging them to take calculated risks. The danger I am seeing is when young people embrace failure in the wrong way. It almost seems like they’re trying to race through more failures to earn a badge, rather than trying the best they can to give the idea the best chance. This ‘failure movement’ is mostly supported by mediocre people who have few ideas and cannot execute. They continue to romanticize failure, to the extent that they start to expect it. We need to prepare for failure, but never expect it. The failure movement is growing an irresponsible attitude toward risk-taking and Design Thinking.
Just because you fail many times, doesn’t mean that you have a better chance of emerging from challenges unscathed. It gives people an excuse to think harder and learn to apply Design Thinking principles to model scenarios to avoid or minimize failure. Most innovation can’t avoid failure. In fact failure is often by design, it is part of the process of iterative development and market learning. I don’t consider that failure.
Prototyping and learning from mistakes can ultimately lead to a higher chance of success, but it also de-risks project mistakes that usually come from the weaknesses of our human mind, such as hindsight bias. We should be teaching people how to deal with those biases.
The failure movement often falls prey to both of these biases. How many people can you name that went broke while attempting various business ventures, and are still broke? Can you write a list of these people more easily than a list of successful entrepreneurs who overcame immense obstacles to succeed? I think we are giving ‘failure’ too much credit.
I can see why those stories sell, they’re comforting to read and somehow people feels closer to success. This is not the case. If you’ve failed 50 times it doesn’t mean you’re closer to making it. Let’s stop over-glorifying failure and avoid the pain. We know what it means when you have your fingers burnt once. The smartest way is to teach people to learn from Other People’s Failure (OPF). There is so much we can and should learn from it.
When I teach my strategy courses in master level programs, 80% of my teachings are around how companies fail and how to avoid it in the first place. For me, it’s called ‘strategy.’ There are so many free lessons our there, you don’t need to pay the price to feel the pain. Someone did it already. There is no need to romanticize failures, instead, we should learn how to best avoid failure and, in the worst-case scenarios, be prepared to bounce back from it. That’s what Design Thinking can do.
For the full story, pls see the June issue of M/I/S/C which is available in 26 countries and digital subscription is available through Zinio.