In nature, when you fail it has pretty bad consequences — you end up getting eaten by a tiger or some other predator. In the corporate world, “failure” is also typically associated with bad things — like losing your job. Especially as you rise higher and higher up the ranks, screw up and you’re out.
In stark contrast is failure in the startup world. In this space (for the most part), failure is not only accepted, it’s seen as a badge of honor. Founders may fail, give up, pivot, re-pivot and start over in less than 12 months. What does this mean? Well, other than my perplexity as to how they manage to survive, their tenacity and undeterred faith that they will ultimately be successful is unlike anything I’ve experienced in the business world. Why is this concept — welcoming failure— so widely held, and how does it create its antithesis — success?
Fear of failure stifles innovation
An organization intolerant to failure is an organization uninterested in innovation — this has become a rather common concept in the business world. The path to success is littered with the bodies of once great organizations that got too big and too risk-averse to remain relevant to changing times, and there is no doubt that we are about to experience a tidal wave of extinctions due to this phenomenon. There are countless multi-billion dollar organizations that are about to have their entire business model completely wiped out by technology, specifically, AI and robotics. I was recently speaking at a conference with 50 or so executives of Fortune 500 organizations and had a shocking revelation that several of their industries would soon be extinct — and many appeared to be clueless to the fact.
A consistent pattern can be observed: entrepreneurs and startups are subconsciously rejecting the established rules around work that hamstring so many older organizations. Innovation is the name of the game, it’s the soul of the startup entity — and thus failure is embraced.
Intolerance of failure leads to an environment of distrust
This is where the rubber meets the road and where large enterprise leaders could really learn something from startup leaders. Startups thrive in attracting innovative talent by promoting concepts like embracing failure. This is because the underlying effect of that concept has immense impact on trust, morale, and culture.
Understanding that you can take chances for the good of the organization and if it doesn’t work, you won’t be fired, creates an absolute environment of trust. This concept of trust is the number-one reason talented and innovative people say they left large enterprise (after being trained) to work in the startup world.
Maybe failure is actually just being brave
I was recently riding the Atlanta Streetcar downtown with serial entrepreneur Michael Tavani, discussing the difference in behaviors between today’s founders and startup employees today compared to a generation ago. We both agreed that the concept of “time as a most precious commodity” is so much more prevalent now because of changed perceptions around traditional notions of success. Further, technology and information has changed individuals’ views on how they can survive and be successful.
It’s this heightened value of time over traditional notions of stability that drive individuals to take more chances now. It’s not like previous generations didn’t want these things; they just didn’t have the resources to do it. Those resources — the information now readily available to all — inspires a new generation of workers to take chances. Inevitably, when you take chances you don’t necessarily succeed and people call it failure. But maybe…it’s just being brave.
While “embracing failure” as a concept has certainly been criticized, especially by those that have already seen success, it is undoubtedly a significant component of startup success. As organizations grow and scale this will be one of the concepts they certainly struggle with keeping. From my experience though, it’s one worth fighting for and it can be done; it just manifests itself more as an understanding of trust. I was lucky to work in that type of environment for many years and the success that followed was spectacular. It just requires a conscious effort to trust that embracing failure is part of trust, and trust leads to success — especially if you call it being brave.
Chad Strickland is a human capital executive, attorney, speaker, author, and thought leader. With a 20 year career which transitioned into a senior business executive with one of the mot successful and highest growth speciality retailers in the country, Chad was responsible for the most valued aspect of the business model: people and culture.