Free To Fail, Free To Try

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Free To Fail, Free To Try

“I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” – Thomas Edison

If you have an innovative spirit but feel held back by a fear of failure, look to Iceland for inspiration. Not only is this country’s population perennially ranked as one of the happiest in the world, Iceland also has a culture where failure is admired in a sense, where trying is the important thing, so long as the intention is good. The people feel free to try, take a chance, experiment — even if the outcome isn’t “successful” in a way much of the rest of the world defines this term. Not surprising then that another by-product of the culture is a strong self-confidence which defines many Icelanders.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, failure is associated with weakness and mediocrity, not strength and courage. For this reason, psychologists list fear as the biggest block standing in the way of peoples’ ability to be creative. So how does this translate to the business world, where more and more companies are quick to tout themselves as innovative and entrepreneurial? It doesn’t translate well and continues to result in a big disparity between what companies say and what is ultimately produced by their employees.

Companies increasingly want to be viewed as innovators because it’s great for the brand, yet they’re made up of people who by and large fear that leading a failed project can sidetrack a career. As a result, few are bold enough to champion and see through an idea that might not succeed. Instead, the majority of them end up attached to projects where group paralysis by analysis inevitably takes over — a frustrating but effective hedge against individual failure. This scenario then consistently plays out across the organization. And in the end, what companies are after (real innovation) becomes elusive. All talk, no action.

What a way to work – safe, secure and frightened. But at least nobody gets fired!

Cautiously avoiding any pothole that may derail a project and lead to its failure will never allow the best ideas to surface or the biggest breakthroughs to occur. It is allowance for mistakes that will reveal the flaws and limitations in mediocre ideas. But without people believing this important safety net is below them, crappy ideas will keep taking hold instead, and an organization’s potential will never be realized. We’ve become a nation of companies and politicians promoting way too many lame ideas, because better ones remain trapped inside the heads of bright but fearful people who consciously mute themselves.

The answer to the problem starts with an organization’s structure. Any established company that believes it can be innovative and disruptive without separating into “legacy” and “start-up” operating units is doomed to fail. Just look to the past or the present for proof; examples are everywhere.

The same processes, procedures, incentives, cultural mindset, etc. cannot be the same for both groups. The business models are too different and won’t support a single way of operating. Even the fear-of-failure thinking is very different. In the legacy unit, a fear of failing discourages speed and taking risks, whereas in the start-up unit it drives a sense of urgency and encourages risk taking. These differences have to be acknowledged and supported by senior management, or the innovation problem will linger and creative ideas will continue to stall in the conception phase.

Companies need idea generators, market disrupters and entrepreneurs if their expectation is to evolve and thrive in a digital world where new forms of competition now go from being invisible to major threats in little time. These are intrinsically motivated people who typically have the courage to fail. They understand failure is part of the deal when trying to accomplish something new and meaningful. The one thing that will kill their motivation and waste their innate talent is a work environment where fear of failing is prevalent. Strong, open-eyed leaders can prevent this from happening. Give these employees the space and freedom they need, and usually great things will happen.

About the Author:

Joe McGrattan oversees strategy and business development for Triple Helix. For nearly three decades, he has been helping companies leverage technology and their data to conduct business more effectively in a digital economy. This includes building strategic-level alliances with non-tech professional services firms whose clients are demanding more information management and technology-related guidance from them. Joe’s blog contributions focus on business-oriented advice to companies on how to take advantage of their data to run smarter, faster, leaner and more securely. He can be reached at joe.mcgrattan@3xcorp.com or found on LinkedIn.