A few months ago, a museum opened in Stockholm to great excitement celebrating failures – from Betamax to Blockbuster. The exhibition was much more successful than anyone ever imagined and is now touring the world.
Why are we obsessed with failure? Is it a reaction to perfectly curated online lives and Hollywood imagery? Nostalgia for a different time? Or that we’re excited and accepting of failure, understanding that it’s part of progression?
It’s certainly a topic of discussion in many organisations: how do you take the type of risks that could really pay-off? Today’s most successful and inspirational businesses – the Alphabets and Apples of the world – are not bureaucratic and fearful of failure. They think beyond what’s worked before and try the unexpected.
So how can we all make sure we’re not being held back from creating The Next Big Thing? To find out, the Mindlab Academy spoke to Barney Whiter who worked in corporate finance for more than twenty years, witnessing firsthand companies succeeding – and failing. He now teaches classes at The School of Life on How to Fail.
Barney, is failure a bad thing?
“The idea you can always avoid failure is ludicrous. Capitalism works based on dynamic change. It works on winners and losers. It works on competition. When you’re constantly under attack from new entrants, you have to innovate and take risks.
“Not taking risks is even more dangerous. History is full of examples of once all-powerful businesses that became complacent, stopped innovating and were overtaken by the competition.
“When the market is constantly moving, you have to accept that failure of a proportion of projects is inevitable.”
So how can insight, planning and strategy teams make sure they’re always pushing forward and trying new approaches and products?
“Failure has traditionally been swept under the carpet. We tell ourselves – and each other – stories of striving, overcoming huge odds and eventually winning. While this insistence on positivity may help motivate people to strive for success, it can’t always work. We can’t control or guarantee the end result. All we can do is control our actions.
“The best companies create a culture which supports intelligent risk-taking. Failure is destigmatized. Co-operation and knowledge sharing are encouraged. Failures are treated as valuable lessons for the future.
“Some companies even create special units outside of the formal corporate hierarchy to encourage risk-taking and innovation on high-return projects. Google’s X is a classic example: an R&D facility which accepts trying new things is risky but is what leads to world-changing successes. If the products they are innovating take-off in the way the search engine has, the returns will be huge.
“Technology companies like Google are often the most risk-aware and risk tolerant amongst large organisations. At the other end of the spectrum are government departments and public services. Most FMCG companies lie somewhere between these two – needing to innovate and take risks with new products while trying to protect the long-term brand loyalty customers have for existing products.”
Many organisations want to push things further, so how can people do this?
“For people wanting to innovate more, five key principles to follow are:
Barney Whiter teaches classes on How to Fail at The School of Life, which is dedicated to developing emotional intelligence and applies psychology, philosophy, and culture to work and to everyday life. Barney also blogs at www.theescapeartist.me.