Embracing failure – Why it should NOT be part of your company culture

posted on November 9th 2017 in company culture & Future of work & Innovation & Learning & Productivity with 0 Comments

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Accepting and embracing professional failure has become a cornerstone of today’s modern and open-minded company culture. People feel a sense of freedom to talk openly and honestly about failure on social media and even at special events (e.g. “Fuckup Nights”).

The basic idea of the “failure” culture is that people shouldn’t be ashamed of their mistakes, that they should dare to do new things without letting the fear of failure stop them. And the story goes that with an ensuing learning process you’ll eventually get to an innovative breakthrough. Try again, fail again, fail better.

So the equation of a failure culture seems to be: the more failure – the more innovation in the end.

Elon Musk said, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovative enough”. You can even download this quote as a wallpaper.

I really appreciate Elon Musk with all his crazy (yet thought-provoking) ideas, but when it comes to failure, he is deadly wrong.

Let me explain why “embracing failure” will not give you what you expect to get.


Failure = failure x 2

Whatever you name it, failure means you didn’t accomplish what you set out to do. And it means that you wasted time, money, motivation, credibility, and many other resources. But these are only the obvious downsides.

Failing says something about you, that you did fail not only one time, but two times, simultaneously.

First of all, you failed on the thing you actually wanted to do – it didn’t work out.

Second – you failed business basics. You failed to set your lead measures correctly to determine all the exact components that increase your likelihood to succeed dramatically.

“But innovation is a creative process” I hear people murmuring in the back of the audience.

Yes, there is something to trial and error – you have to test theories to know if they will work or not and to make improvements. But you don’t go into it completely blind, you take time to research and apply learned principles to create the theory. But you do have to test it and part of that is trial and error.

The problem is the mindset that failure is ok – which means a person sets out to test something with the thought that if it doesn’t work, that’s fine. This creates a laziness. And that is the problem.

When Edison tested the lightbulb, I doubt he went into each test with the mindset of “if it fails, it’s no big deal”. He was driven to build a lightbulb that worked, so every attempt was probably a true, hours of research invested, attempt to succeed. Failure allows us to approach innovation with a laziness that says it’s ok if we don’t succeed. That mindset does create a pure chance work environment.


Failure ≠ learning

The benefit of learning is the most common excuse for failure. People assume that if they fail, a learning process will follow on autopilot. This is far from being true and neglects the principles of the cognitive learning processes.

People tend to confuse  “learning” with what in fact is an “experience”.

Often this experience is not transferred into a significant change in thinking and doing because people normally don’t understand the problem that has led to their failure or crisis. Only by understanding the actual problem can real learning be possible.

It is illusory, yet very common, to believe that bads things are good for us. That you have to go through hell to get to heaven. That crisis makes us stronger and failure makes us smarter. Allowing a great failure to lead you to the realization of how to run your business is not only tragic, it’s a stupid way to succeed.


failure of others ≠ learning

One of the reasons failure-events are popular (besides the fact that everyone wants to make failure look like something acceptable and human) is that other people can benefit from the fact that someone else already made that failure. So you can learn from their experience and you don’t need to replicate that failure again (because someone else already did it for you).

There is a thinking bias called “domain dependence”. Essentially this means that our brains are not able to transfer skills, experience and knowledge from one domain to another. This applies to failure as well. The mistake that has been made in one domain adds zero learning benefit in another domain.

Usually, failures occur out of complex problems that are hardly understood. Understanding complex problems and learning from them is already challenging in your own domain. Understanding complex problems in the domain of someone else and transferring that knowledge to your own domain is almost superhuman.


What will really bring you forward

Part of a good company culture is for sure communication, acceptance and trust.

But this is not built by “celebrating” failures.

Moving your business forward can be accomplished by real learning and by applying business principles. But not by a failure-experience.

Real learning means: understanding the problem and changing your mindset, thinking and behaviour.

This is what will bring you forward.