Who’s afraid of the F word?

In businesses, as in life, failure is something that most people try to avoid.

Failure can be embarrassing. Imagine having to tell your friends and parents that your start-up company has gone bankrupt.

Failure can undermine your self-confidence. Imagine if your corporate blunder led to your retrenchment. And of course, as with both these examples, failure can lead to devastating financial consequences that can stick with you throughout your career.

Given all the downside, it is understandable that, in the words of Ralph Heath, author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big, most people, “would choose to play it safe, to fly below the radar, repeating the same safe choices over and over again and operating under the belief that if they make no waves, they attract no attention.”

Who in the world would want to fail, right?

Cutting edge

Well, as it turns out, successful entrepreneurs, in small and large companies alike, do!

If you are afraid to fail, you’ll never really succeed

Lim Li Hsien,
founder The Society of Black Sheep

As Lim Li Hsien, successful founder of The Society of Black Sheep, a Singaporean mixed-brand boutique based at the landmark Marina Bay Sands shopping mall says: “My whole brand is about cutting edge and not always playing it safe. And that brand ethic permeates our working culture. If you are afraid to fail, you’ll never really succeed. You’ll just slide off into mediocrity. And that applies to both individual employees as well as to the firm itself.

“When I first started, targeting an edgy 35+ segment was totally untried territory as the market wisdom was that this segment preferred to play it safe. And of course, equally untried was my location at MBS. So there was a great deal of risk and unknown when we started.”

This sentiment reflects a commonly-held entrepreneurial view that only by taking risk can one really yield big returns in business. And the obvious implication with taking risk is that you must be prepared to fail from time to time. Failure, to some degree, becomes a bellwether for risk taking. If you don’t fail, that should strongly suggest that you are not taking enough risks to make it big.

Critical for success

And in today’s economic environment, no company can afford to be stagnant. Innovation is critical for growth and long-term market success. So if your company has trouble with failure, you’re likely to have trouble with innovation. And that means death in today’s highly competitive marketplace.

blacksheep280So how do you make your company failure-friendly?

Lim suggests that businesspeople actively reduce the implications of downsides.

“Step 1” she explains, “is to celebrate failures and share the learning results visibly. And you must do this from the most senior levels of the organisational structure all the way down. Make sure that everyone understands that it is OK to fail and that they all learn from everyone else’s trailblazing.

“Employees should say to themselves, ‘I see that Chong, associate vice president of X, failed, and he is not only back at work, but he still has the support of the CEO. I can fail and come to work the next day. Chong proves it!'”

Mirroring Lim’s position, Ralph Heath of Celebrating Failure writes: “The quickest road to success is to possess an attitude toward failure of ‘no fear.’ To do their work well, to be successful and to keep their companies competitive, leaders and workers on the front lines need to stick their necks out a mile every day. They have to deliver risky, edgy, breakthrough ideas, plans, presentations, advice, technology, products, leadership, and more. And they have to deliver all this without any fear whatsoever of failure, rejection or punishment.”

Constant stretch

logo280A failure-friendly culture also requires a special approach to recruitment. Lim adds: “The only time people fail is when they are stretching themselves.  I’m in a fast growth, highly challenging, quick-changing business. I need staff who are constantly stretching themselves, learning, and growing. Hiring a stick-in-the-mud is the worst thing I can do for my business.

“As a result, when I am hiring, I look for candidates who fail once or twice a year. If they tell me that they haven’t failed, then I know that they are not stretching themselves, which means that they don’t have the drive I need. If, during the interview, they can’t recall a time that they’ve failed, I know that they are not good at learning from their failures. Both types of candidates should be walked straight out the door.”

Finally, a failure-friendly culture ensures that everyone learns from failure and that failures are not repeated. For this to happen, Lim recommends, “you need to create opportunities for your staff to talk about failures, analyse them as a group, and save those lessons in the stories and legends of your firm’s culture.”

Doing a proper post-mortem or retrospective, in a positive, supportive atmosphere is key to all of this. And facilitating such a session requires lots of practice and consistency, so you need to make time for it, or it’ll always get put off for later.

  • Author Profile

    Eric Tachibana is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Strategy and Policy at NUS Business School where he teaches Intrapreneurship and Entrepreneurship. He is also founding director of a regional private equity fund and COO for the Chief Technology Office function at a large global bank.

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