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Elon Musk famously said: “If something is important enough you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure.” In today’s VUCA world, there are hardly any guarantees anymore. Just as Whatsapp and other messaging services have bitten out billions from large established Telecom companies’ revenues, established businesses and sure-fire branches are under threat every day. If it’s not the curly haired guys in a garage, it may be an advertising fiasco, a new regulation, changing technologies, and even ageing population.

Companies and organisations are reacting in a number of different ways to build safety-nets and equip leadership with tools to prevent failure and maximise success. From coaching to intrapreneurship, performance management, agile project management to diversified investments, foresight and perhaps the latest, predictive analytics. But what if there was another way to equip organisations and their leaders to deal with risks and failure?

How about letting them fail?

Our fear of failure is intrinsically coupled with our quest for perfection, as well as fear of the ridicule, of shame, and other negative emotions and consequences associated with how we will be perceived, if we fail. And this fear can be totally paralysing, which is harming innovation, creativity and problem solving. So where does this fear begin? Perhaps already in school, when the feedback children get is about the number or percentage of mistakes they made. How many words have a spelling mistake or how many calculations they got wrong, or how many names of plants they did not remember. And growing up being put on the spot and perhaps ridiculed and shamed for the mistakes you make is, I venture, perhaps not the best way.

Failing as a part of the journey

In her TED talk, motivation researcher Carol Dweck, who studies “growth mindsets” explains the difference between the “failing” grade and the powerful “not there yet” grade. If we just inform kids about how much they got wrong, or that they have failed at something, their view of themselves will be about failure. But by giving them the “not yet” grade, they understand, that they are on a learning journey, on a quest, and not stuck at a place of inadequacy. In addition, by rewarding children with “A”s or whatever the best grade is in your school system, we foster the mindset of short-term gratification, one after the other. This is something that now comes back from employers, who report that Millennials now almost need a daily reward to keep trying and working.

Whereas if schools and parents would be rewarding effort, by praising the process that kids engage in, their endeavour, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance, their improvement, that would create kids who are hardy and resilient. And this is something, we learn way too late in life, if ever: life is more of a marathon, not a sprint. Just as we learn much later, that we are not failures when we fail. And the quest for perfection, for innovation for success is not futile. Failing is an essential part of this journey. With every failed attempt the final intended outcome will improve.


#Failing is part of the journey - with every failed attempt the outcome will improve! Click To Tweet

It takes years to become an overnight success

Social media is of course not helping, because it still celebrates the flawless, the polished, the perfect – for bodies, minds, careers and successes. We never see the struggle, the doubt, the sweat, or all those times it didn’t work. There may have been a thousand tries, but we only see the one, when it worked out. Hollywood also has a way of wanting to make everything look like an overnight success, whereas it usually takes about 10 years to become an “overnight success”.

Tim Westergren, the Co-Founder of Pandora Radio, an online music streaming and recommendations platform, not only spent 20 years working as a producer and songwriter, he even had to take jobs as a nanny to earn enough money. He was turned down 300 times by investors, and when the company burned through their initial 2 million USD in 2001, Tim Westergren convinced the 50 employees to stay on and work for 2 years for free. In 2011, the company was valued at 2,6 billion dollars as they went public and their 2012 first quarter revenues were 80,8 million USD. I bet those employees were glad they stayed on. But I also bet, that Tim Westergren and his co-founders must have been incredibly close to quitting many times.

Fail…until you get it right

Apparently it takes 3 near-death experiences for any company to figure out how to make it profitable. The most well-known start-up CEOs had many failed start-ups before they achieved celebrity status for the one that succeeded (apparently 17 on average). 90% of start-ups are set to fail, but there is also change at the top among the established companies, because the rate of change on the Fortune 500 list is increasing. Compared to a 45% turnover in the nineties, in the next decade the rate of change among top companies will increase to 70% in the next decades[1], which means that only a third of current Fortune 500 companies will remain on that list in the next 10 years (“Built to Change: How to Achieve Sustained Organizational Effectiveness” by Edward E. Lawler, III, Christopher G. Worley). And why are so many dropping out? Because they fail to be entrepreneurial.


Being #entrepreneurial: Knowing you are likely to #fail and still go for it! Click To Tweet


This is perhaps the single biggest differentiator of success currently in business, the ability to take calculated risks, and put yourself through the pain of repeated rejections and failure… until you get it right. No wonder, that when in a recent interview he was asked about his most difficult times with Tesla and Space-X in 2008, the time he ran out of money so bad, that he had to ask friends to lend him money to pay his rent, he got so emotional, that the interview had to be interrupted.

Failure is part of the quest

So, what can organisations and individuals take away from all of this? Organisations, however hard it may be, need to embed the notion in their culture, that failure is an inevitable part of the quest. And without failing, there is no learning. If organisations, parents and society manage to take away the fear of failure, of humiliation, then we can really liberate an enormous amount of creative talent. People then can discover their skills and strengths, and really discover where their limits are, what they are capable of achieving, learn a tremendous amount of new things, and not least, reduce the risk of failure of their companies due to the inaction, which is the riskiest strategy currently.


Without #failing there is no #learning! #OrganisationalCulture Click To Tweet


Having perspective on failure also helps. What seems like a complete tragedy at the moment will be transformed into vital lessons learnt, and life goes on. Leaders play a key role in putting this into perspective, allowing for the necessary grieving process, but then shifting attention away from the negative feelings into learning, and absolutely avoid blaming and shaming, but making sure the responsibility is taken by those in charge, and there is accountability for the investment, the losses and the learning. This on the other hand does require a lot of humility and also vulnerability. Stepping away from the almighty, know-it-all CEO persona, and move towards co-creation and in particular enabling the environment for experimentation and risk-taking.

Failure is temporary, but the learning is permanent

Organisations need to foster a culture and environment that invites their people to play to their strengths, to experiment, to stretch themselves, coupled with a diverse workforce, bringing in the great complexities of life, as well as allow for vulnerability. In particular, when we will work alongside robots and smart machines, the routine, repetitive tasks, which carry a low risk of failure, will be automated, so we humans will be left with the tasks that are guaranteed to go wrong in one or multiple ways.

About the author


Agnes Uhereczky is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the WorkLife HUB, a research and consultancy company dedicated to work-life integration, exploring the intersection of work and life from the point of view of policy, legislation, organisational culture and leadership. She is producing the WorkLife podcast and is a regular speaker and Blogger on the topic.




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