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Is failure all its cracked up to be?

07.04.2013
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burntheboatsIt's never been a better time to fail at things.  Failure is seen as a kinda cool thing to do.  The legend goes that if you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough to be innovative.  Failure is seen as an essential part of the innovative toolkit because of the learning experiences it affords you.  By getting things wrong, it helps you to get things right.

Groups such as the UK innovation charity Nesta have even been running FailureFests, which are events designed to get people talking about their failures.  Likewise, organisations such as DARPA have famously aimed for failure rates of 90% on their projects.

The theory goes that failure when done in the right way is great.  If you're failing in lots of small ways then it provides a lot of learning experiences to help you find things that do work.  Except I'm not sure it really works like that.

A Harvard Business School study for instance found that when venture capitalists looked for which entrepreneurs to back, they overwhelmingly chose that had achieved success in the past.

Already-successful entrepreneurs were far more likely to succeed again: their success rate for later venture-backed companies was 34 percent. But entrepreneurs whose companies had been liquidated or gone bankrupt had almost the same follow-on success rate as the first-timers: 23 percent.

So those that had found success in the past, were much more likely to succeed again.  Those that had failed by contrast were no more likely to succeed second time round than people who were trying things for the first time.

Now of course learning is a key component of any business, and indeed any project, but there's a real danger here that we risk making failure acceptable.  With that acceptance comes the possibility that we send a message to people saying that you don't have to try to make your work the best it can be, because failure is ok.  There's an assumption that failed attempts are essential components on the road to success.

So the next time you start out on a project or build a new company, don't have in the back of your mind this notion that failure is an ok safety net for you to fall back onto should things go wrong.  Instead go into things with the mindset that you'll make your best efforts to ensure it is a success.

It brings to mind the famous story of Hernan Cortes, the famous Spanish con­quis­ta­dor, who when he landed on the beaches of Mexico, hopelessly outnumbered against the vast Aztec army ordered his ships to be burnt so his men knew that failure was not an option.  There was no plan B.  No method of escape.  Ok, I know there have been doubts cast over the veracity of that story, but it provides a nice contrast to the notion that failure is ok.  Like Cortes, you should assume success, not failure, in whatever you set out to do.