Australia: Face your fear of failure and innovate your way to success in business

Last Updated: 28 July 2015
Article by Nick Humphrey

In the second part of a three-part series, Nick Humphrey discusses the importance of embracing failure and learning to experiment

"The worst mistake anyone can make is being too afraid to make one."

True innovation involves risking failure –and facing a range of possible consequences, such as financial loss, or losing your title, credibility or some other privileges accruing to your position. A key role of management is to manage, mitigate and minimise this fear.

A useful technique to overcome the inertia caused by this fear of failure is to 'name your fear'. Spend time envisioning your fear of failure. Go into some detail about the worst thing that could happen if your project fails, then consider the likelihood on a scale of 1to 10 that such a failure will occur versus the upside if the project succeeds. Consider ways to mitigate the downside. Usually, once you have gone through this process, you will have a better perspective of the risks. In most cases, people over-estimate both the likelihood and consequences of failure.

Menlo Innovations, an IT company in Michigan, has a large sign in its office which says 'Make mistakes faster!' The enthusiastic catch-cry of many start-ups is 'fail hard', 'fail forward', or 'fail fast'. While these are clichés, there is merit in embracing the attitude that instead of demonising failure, it should be seen as part of the journey to success.

It is a badge of honour in Silicon Valley for an entrepreneur to have been part of a failed startup. There appears to be far less stigma attached to failure and the Valley recognises that to generate revolutionary ideas therewill be high failure rates. Only1in 10 startups in which venture capitalists invest will generate the famous '10 bagger' –that is, a return of 10 times their investment. An entrepreneur who has been part of a failed startup learns valuable lessons fromtheir mistakes, which they hopefully will not repeat.

Peter Drucker, author and management consultant, controversially suggests that businesses should find all the employees who never make mistakes and fire them.1He argues that people who do notmake mistakes never do anything interesting. Moreover, admitting that mistakes happen –and dealing with them constructively –makes them less likely to err again.

Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post, also describes her view on failure:"My mother used to call failure a stepping-stone to success, as opposed to the opposite of success. When you frame failure that way, it changes dramatically what you're willing to do, how you're willing to invent, and the risks you'll take."2

Be willing to experiment

Innovation will flourish when people are willing to experiment with the how, what, where and when.3Try new things, see how they go, adjust your approach and try again. If it does not work, try something new and move on.

Source: adapted from Bryan Coffman, Building the Innovation Culture: Some Notes on Adaptation and Change in Network-Centric Organizations, InnovationLabs.

An essential ingredient to the experimentation project is mindset. Success requires an enquiring mind, a mindset of 'innocence' sometimes called the beginner's mind. In other words, as Coffman explains, the "ability to look at something familiar from a new perspective as if seeing it for the first time ... the practiced ability to ask good questions that open the doors of inspiration".4

Tim Harford suggests that the modern business world has become far too complex and unpredictable to be tackled with "ready-made solutions and expert opinions".5He argues that we need to constantly adapt, embrace failure, improvise rather than rigidly plan and cease working top down and instead build from the bottom up. Hartford tells the interesting story of Unilever wanting to design a nozzle to produce flakes of detergent. The nozzle played a key role in production, with liquid detergent being forced through this nozzle under high pressure and producing a spray that would dry into flakes, which could then be boxed up and sold as detergent.

Initially, they asked highly trained mathematicians and physicists to design the nozzle, but with all their complex analytical tools they could not design the ultimate nozzle. The solution? Trial and error. They tried a dozen different designs and tracked the results. They took the best design and tried another dozen prototypes based on that one. Over time, they built the ultimately efficient nozzle –a design so complex that the only way to solve the puzzle was by experimentation and evolving design.

Build an environment of trust

There is a high correlation between happy, engaged teams and teams which innovate. When people feel safe, valued and protected, they will push the boundaries and try new things. A key element of a culture of innovation is 'being safe'; in other words, it requires a deep and complete sense of shared trust.

A management style which ridicules staff who may have made a mistake in front of their peers will not engender the risk-taking required for innovation. Your team needs to trust that if you say you value innovation, that you will laud it and reward it. They will need to trust that while you do not encourage failure, you will not punish them unfairly for it unless there was an element of recklessness.

Building trust is difficult in an organisation based oncommand and control, and management will need to work particularly hard with regular and open communication to demonstrate and prove the new-found trust. Trust comes when leaders act as protectors and teamsknow that 'my boss has my back'. Next time one of your team makes a mistake, think carefully before you criticise them for that failure and consider the impact that it will have on your relationship.

Focus on the outcome you want, rather than a knee-jerk reaction of blame. Consider also what role you played in the failure of that project: are you completely blameless or perhaps you failed to supervise properly, failed to provide adequate boundaries, resources or directions? Rise above that incident, work with your team to figure out what went wrong andsupport them to try again.


1Alexander Kjerulf, "5 reasons to celebrate mistakes at work," See
2Issie Lapowsky, "Arianna Huffington's Rule for Success –Dare to Fail", See
3Bryan Coffman, Building the Innovation Culture: Some Notes on Adaptation and Change in Network-Centric Organizations, InnovationLabs, See
5Tim Harford, "Trial, Error and the God Complex", TED Talk, July 2011. See

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Nick Humphrey
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