Failure is an often discussed topic anywhere businessmen gather. Historically the discussion has been about how to avoid it. But more recently it’s been around how to encourage it. That’s because companies realize that they can only achieve big moon-shot successes by risking failure.
I’ve had my own recent realization about the importance and nature of failure, and how to encourage what I think of as a productive failure.
California (of course) is the epicenter of the “embrace failure” philosophy. Companies like Google X have created incentives for people to acknowledge when they fail. Johannes Haushofer, a two-time PhD, became a Twitter sensation when he posted a “Failure Resume,” of all the things that had gone wrong in his career. Author and Stanford Technology Ventures Program advisor Tina Seelig requires all of her students to write one.
“A failure resume is a quick way to demonstrate that failure is an important part of our learning process, especially when you’re stretching your abilities, doing things the first time, or taking risks,” Seelig wrote.
If you aren’t failing—if you personally aren’t failing—then you can never achieve the most ambitious things you want to achieve.
We all learn through failure, from the time we are babies discovering that the stove is hot, throughout adulthood, learning that developing any new skill requires hours of practice. The 10,000-hour rule, for example, introduced in Malcom Gladwell’s popular book, Outliers, holds that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become an expert in any field. It’s constant and repetitive failure that helps us learn. Trial and error. Yet we don’t recognize this as being the key to success.
At least part of the reason is the billionaire fable industry feeds us stories that tend to follow a predictable course—a brilliant idea leads to a string of successes, and one formidable obstacle or two that the plucky hero handily overcomes through hustle, smarts, and guile. But these stories usually discount the role of thousands of little and big failures along the way that weigh heavily in the making of a success.
That makes it appear as though those of us who climb, slip, slide back down the hill, and start back up again are doing something wrong.
But try, fail, try again is the more likely path to success. Look at James Dyson, who over 5 years went through 5,127 prototypes to come up with his revolutionary bagless vacuum. He has built an empire applying similar technology to hand driers, a hair drier (600 prototypes) a floor cleaning robot 1,000-plus prototypes), and other products totaling $2.4 billion in sales last year.
Outside of California, the concept of embracing failure has been slower to catch on. Here in Lancaster Pennsylvania, there’s this crazy personal reputation thing wrapped up in what people perceive as their own integrity. People feel that if they fail they’ve literally ruined their reputations, that they will forever have a scarlet letter F emblazoned on their clothing.
Failure provokes shame. Which makes it harder to risk failure. Which makes it harder to progress.
This has proven a special challenge for me at Aspire, where we engage in ambitious projects with world changing potential.
I’ve had a bit of an epiphany around this lately, though.
We are building the world’s first Internet of Things Hospital called Clio (more on that at a later date). While designing, we found a great company called DIRTT Environmental Solutions. DIRTT (which stands for “Do It Right This Time,”) is a tech company focused on making custom-built prefabricated interior walls.
DIRTT’s walls can be put up quickly, free of construction dust, with chases built in for plumbing and electrical, and panels that are easily replaced if damaged. Its walls are now used in many major hospitals, including University of Pennsylvania.
You would think that our contractors would feel good about using DIRTT walls, since they have been proven to work in other local and nationally prominent hospitals.
But they didn’t feel good. In fact, they were highly, highly skeptical of the product.
So here’s the epiphany that I’ve had about failure. It’s not enough that people, like our contractors, see a success.
No. it’s actually about their personal comfort with the risk for failure. Faced with something they haven’t done before, or a product they have never used, they still see an unacceptable risk—even in a proven product.
It’s not that they are bad contractors—to the contrary, our guys are amazing, but they just don’t want to disappoint us by taking a risk on a product that they don’t know. This is the recipe to ensure that nothing new ever gets done.
So what can be done about it?
One answer is to find people willing to risk failure. I think the secret lies in hiring people who have rebelled against the tyranny of experts before. People who tried something they were told they couldn’t do, and who kept at it till they got it done.
Failing that, I can develop my own risk-takers by getting people to make the connection between risk and success. I suspect everyone has a “they-said-it-couldn’t-be-done-but-I-did-it” story. We can find that story, review how it came to be, and encourage that person to embrace that ethic. The business school name for that is “bright spot analysis.”
What I think people have to realize is if you’re not failing, you’re not learning. And if you’re not learning, you’ve already failed.