How to Embrace Failure Without Falling on Your Face

Get INNOVATION INSIDE your inbox

Many years ago, I presented what I considered to be a very cool project to an extremely smart VP of Marketing in a large B2C company on the East Coast of the US. Fortunately, she shared my enthusiasm, and the process of engaging us for the project was running along nicely. It was an ambitious and somewhat risky project in the sense that it required the involvement of about 20 high-level managers who were very skeptical about its chances of success. This put “my” VP in the stressful position of either ending up as the initiator of a notable success or being forever remembered as the perpetrator of a huge mistake (could she embrace failure?).

At some point, she asked me: “Can we make absolutely sure this will succeed?”And, silly me, I answered with a big smile: “Of course not. Don’t you remember? One of our key messages in this project is that if you innovate you must embrace the risk of failure. So since we are designing such an innovative project, of course there is a risk that it will fail.” Obviously, we didn’t get the project, because, regardless of the oft-quoted cliché, nobody really wants to “celebrate failures”. People want successes. And if there is one thing they will avoid at all costs, it is failure.

Embracing Failure, the Contradiction

There seems to be a contradiction: We want to think ahead. We want to try new things. We want to innovate and embrace failure as part of the inventive process. At the same time, we want to be in control of our outcomes. We cannot afford to make mistakes.

This leads to a dilemma: Companies encourage their employees to fail and learn. But they expect them not to fail.

Failures are at best unwanted – at worst systematically concealed, to avoid blame or punishment. Pressure is the means of control. The result: a fear of failure.

The prevalence of fear of failure in companies is alarming considering how paralyzing it can be for the companies’ development.

Three reasons for this troublesome effect:

Risk Aversion

Here is one cliché that is absolutely true: Failure is an essential part of innovation. When prototyping a new product, expect failure. That’s what prototypes are for, and that is why you will work on several consecutively, or even in parallel. Therefore, the maxim fails fast and try again.

But, if every failure is considered a mini-disaster, who wants to even consider risking it? Rather, the ultimate goal is to achieve full control of the process. Hence, any change or novel idea is treated as a potential threat.

Loser-phobia

If one strives to overcome one’s Cognitive Fixedness, a fundamental tool is the ability to reflect on one’s actions and to engage in metacognition (a reflection on one’s thinking processes). Every failure thus becomes a source of learning and a driver of change.

But, when your failures are perceived as a sign of being a “looser”, what are the chances that you will actually take the time to confront your failures, reflect on them, and draw useful conclusions?

Who? Me?

In cultures that do not truly accept failures, there is a strong incentive to underreport them and to avoid any public reference to them, let alone an open analysis.  This greatly increases, obviously, the probability that the same mistakes will be repeated. A good litmus test: Ask anyone who tells you that you should “embrace failure”, if they are willing to share a recent one of their own. Most chances are they won’t, and that tells you what you will be risking if you share yours.

You probably agree that it can be very beneficial to embrace failure in certain areas – in an honest and consistent manner. But in other areas, we cannot allow for mistakes. The point is, to make this distinction explicit and communicate it to everyone involved. Clarity is key.

Instead of pretending to universally embrace failure, you map out areas in which failing is acceptable. Then, you commit yourself to this map.

Here are some actions you may consider to embrace failure:

 

embrace failure

 

Mark your “control towers”

Imagine working in a control tower. There is obviously no way to embrace failures here. Imagine an airport with 5000 landings and take-offs per month. a mistake rate of 0.01% would imply 5 crashes per month.

There are such “control towers” in every company. In some areas, even if a leader doesn’t care to admit it, failure is not an option. Being explicit about your “control towers” is crucial, if you want people to avoid these specific mistakes at all costs. Only then, everyone is on the same page: We give our best to prevent failure and if it happens, we report it.

In other areas, the expectation might not be as clear. We suggest three mechanisms: define roles, draw lines and install safety nets.

When defining roles, you assign to a specific group of employees the role of innovators. It is then clear to everyone that this group will generate ideas, try new things – and occasionally fail. Your “innovators” will enjoy the freedom to explore and develop new ideas. At the same time, they will be accountable for their failures as part of the process.

Drawing lines means, defining which parts of a project are open to experimentation and those that are not. Within the defined lines, failure is acceptable. Innovation is welcome.

Safety nets are a similar idea, on a different level. To limit the impact of failures, you innovate in specific areas, e.g. those that are not part of your core business.

In defining roles, drawing lines and installing safety nets, we map out areas in which failures are acceptable. Only then we can truly claim: We embrace failure. Feel free to innovate.

In addition to the above actions, you can also utilize some advice from experts on the subject. 

Have a backup plan

Leon Ho says that it never hurts to have a back-up plan. The last thing you want to do is scramble for a solution when the worst has happened. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” This old adage holds solid wisdom. Having a backup plan gives you more confidence to move forward and take calculated risks.

Perhaps you’ve applied for a grant to fund an initiative at work. In the worst-case scenario, if you don’t get the grant, are there other ways you could secure the funds? There are usually multiple ways to tackle a problem, so having a back-up plan is a great way to reduce anxiety about possible failure.

Leon Ho (https://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifehack/how-fear-of-failure-destroys-success.html)

Identify the consequences

Theo Tsaousides says that in order to attenuate fear of failure, first identify the consequences of failing that scare you the most and evaluate your ability to deal with these consequences. Instead of talking yourself out of the fear by hoping that nothing negative will happen, focus on building confidence to deal with the consequences.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Which of these consequences scare you the most?
  • How much impact will they have on you? Are they merely unpleasant or life-threatening? Will they just make you feel uncomfortable, or will they hurt you deeply and irreparably?
  • How quickly will you move on? Are the consequences permanent or reversible? Are they short-lived, or will they linger forever?
  • How well can you handle them? Can you exercise damage control, or will you hide and disappear?

Theo Tsaousides (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/smashing-the-brainblocks/201801/how-conquer-fear-failure)

Now that you’re equipped with the knowledge, it’s your turn: Tell us about YOUR experience in dealing with a Fear of Failure and check out one of our latest article on how to manage airtime!

Amnon Levav

Co-founder & Managing Director of SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking)

Amnon spent the last 22 years in 30+ countries, helping people and companies determine their future by imagining viable alternatives to their current way of thinking and doing. Amnon’s experience ranges from startups to multinationals, and he is especially passionate about social innovation

Johannes Stark

Digital Assistant at SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking)

Johannes is a psychology student at LMU in Munich and IDC in Herzliya. Experienced in behavioral research, therapy, leadership training and coaching. Freelancing journalist and blogger. On a mission to change perspectives.

Total Comments: 3

  • I loved this article as I lived it everyday in its best form and despite its worst over a 45 year career in the most demanding environments. Forgive my longer than normal response as this is a key topic for all that care to make a difference and feel inclusive to shaping a better world, which is a priority of most generations now. Moving forward, I find myself championing our business humanity, which is especially timely in an age of ecosystem savvy and impending AI job impacts.

    I agree that failure breeds a risk averse culture which is synonymous with closure versus growth. I also liked your comment that management needs to recognize its potential innovators, but they may not exist where they expect them to be. You have to look at core characteristics. I was fortunate to have begun my journey to being a conscious creative and value catalyst of sorts, in NYC. I learned to love diversity in all its forms and expressions, most notably to embrace open dialog that exposes the best and worst of any idea, strategy or need. Leaders today, especially those within the ranks as I was when I joined HP in 1978, need a mix of open dialog, consciousness, curiosity, and both internal and external values that collectively create the courage I had to have to connect market values with internal purpose and inclusion.

    HP at its best, was one of the top two most admired companies in the world. So in principle, I had a lot to work with, even as the founders retired and I continued to align their principles in action, by opening our brand relevance to a deeper relevance to how our markets formed trust, credibility and relevance. As you may know, engineering cultures – God bless them for their strengths – often create a dominant and inadvertently closed internal culture. I soon earned regard as the top customer champion. No one above me understood or cared to understand the human side of business relationships. They just knew product and had a “build it and they will come” false pride that their high quality reputation would rule the day. But business and markets form an ecosystem of trust, credibility and relevance…so as I championed that, I became known as the top market strategist. I had courage as the folks above me often greeted new thinking with “It’s your job, your risk, do what you think is best”. I always did and I always succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. If a new product launch had a $50M target first year goal, I returned $300M to $600M every time. If a global program was ill conceived or failing – such as our initial HP Reseller Channel and others were because the value was self-centered – when I realigned the value to be highly relevant to resellers, customers, media and all stakeholders as one interdependent ecosystem, everyone was hugely supportive and those programs quickly yielded high returns in the billions.

    When I left HP, the engineering culture failed to keep the company on the value path that only a market-inspired culture could maintain. Many employees just stop trying and instead they fall in line with the status quo versus what a high level HP Manager once told me. “You managed to always challenge the status quo while earning trust. You always exceeded our wildest hopes revenues-wise. Do that for others and I want to drive your car”. I appreciated his comments while noting he missed the most important part. “My work as a catalyst to what mattered externally, inspired the best efforts of internal teams, resellers and even media, as my process was inclusive, values based, open, and it fueled people-powered success.”

    Today, that is my purpose. At an age where most start looking at retirement unless you are in sports (coaches) or politics (actively retired), I feel blessed to have taken my own journey of conscious relevance. Author Brian Solis best captured my career values, better than I could have articulated it back then, in is books ‘What’s the future of business’ and ‘Xperience, when business meets design’ so I sent him a thank you email. He called me back immediately. Initially in shock anyone could have been thinking and applying his current success principles as far back as 1990 through 2001 …and for conservative HP. He then called me back an hour later to say “You can’t retire. What you have as a body of first-hand, high impact and regenerative value approaches is in huge demand…help them and make a decent living”. I promised him I would continue and I never stopped evolving so what I know now is even far more relevant.

    But I will close with the challenge innovators have when they are on their own or feel that way within an organization needing their best, yet resistant. Being years to decades ahead of corporate mindsets yet spot on with market values is its own challenge, yet my approach is disarmingly human, thus easier than more costly, complex solutions offer. Leaders fall into a pattern to fix silos versus addressing their whole ecosystem as an integrated value delivery engine. They look at traditional large, expensive, complex and slow solutions. They use the words “early adopters” without assessing their actions or inactions. The best ideas are nipped in the bud. without an internal system of accountability to idea generation and support. I prefer more natural, and more human approaches to enabling others.
    I offer two examples: one of a closed internal culture and an open one:

    1. I wanted to get HP back into the Education market as did a fellow engineer. The two of us got permission by our VP to ask the sales force. We did and they universally declared “Stay away. It’s a long selling process and a low price decision. We can’t win”. Now, that arguably sounded like a prevailing truth, but I recognized it as an internal truth. I then went to talk with a few University administrators, professors and students to see how they shaped their truths, needs and values. With that insight as our compass, we shifted our positioning from a vendor to a partner by helping them where it proved to be an impact, yet also sound for our business. The first through third year revenues were $100M, then $200M, then $300M with no end in sight. But when that engineer and I both left as conscious value catalysts, the program started to slide as every program needs an external value champion.
    2. Steelcase – a great, open-cultured office furniture company, invited me to fly to their headquarters in Grand Rapids, MI to talk with their new CEO and staff as they wanted to do, in principle what I had been doing for HP. That initial value connection was created when their yet unidentified VP of Sales met me on a vacation in Banff and upon learning I was in marketing, he grilled me with great questions and liked my answers. I flew out there a week later and went in with no agenda or preparation beyond a natural listening, query and dialog flow with each leader over the course of a day and a half. I then did my own two day research and flew back that next Monday to present my findings. They listened and asked for a week. The CEO called me a week later, kind of in the same shock that Brian Solis had, to say “How the Hell could some computer marketing professional know more about our office furniture business than we do?… but congratulations”. He offered me the VP of Marketing, Brand and Innovation position. I had to decline this dream job, as another geographic move was not an option back then. They applied my strategy to move from 4th place up to their current first place position. I am proud of them as they used values as their compass and validated that an objective catalyst could get a company moving in a better path with periodic infusions of objectivity and external insights.

    OK, this response is now at risk of being an E-book.

    I would enjoy hearing more about SIT as I see innovation as the natural by product of a healthy ecosystem.

  • Funny you should ask such a question. I do have an example for which I will share in hopes that others see the benefit in it and not make the same choice.

    I am a 57 year old Dad with a student at one of the must revered schools in the United States. My son, graduated 82nd out of 913 in his high school class, he has his 2005 GMC Truck that he thinks is on its last leg. So we trade it and get a great price. He has his heart set on this new ride. A 2010 Volkswagen CC with just over 119K miles. We go see the car, I being the Dad say no there are things wrong and it will be a headache to own. He begs and pleads with me that it’s not like that and that everything will be okay. So I know different but concede anyway expecting the outcomes. Long story short, we both failed that day, however we both learned a valuable lesson at the same time. Be the father figure your kids need, not the friend that they want. It also taught him to be patient, quiet and studious when it comes to purchasing a used car.

  • When I stop feeling serene and happy due to external conditions, my health, other people or my act, I consider it to be failure. In short, my every act should be directed to attain bliss and serenity. Any act contradicting this inner feeling of mine is a failure for me.

Leave a comment

Your email will not be published.

Get our innovation model that has worked for 1000+ companies.

No thanks, not now.