Half of all business start-ups will fail within the first five years. A scary statistic but it doesn’t need to be the case. Moving the odds of success isn’t rocket science, it’s actually quite simple. You might think success and failure seem like two opposing ideas. But, in order to succeed, we need to change our relationship with failure.
We associate failure with negative connotations. Failure means rejection, and rejection is a human condition we don’t enjoy. We often confuse personal failure with business failure, yet the two are not the same. Taking failure personally means we often don’t even give ideas a go. It is worth remembering the wise words of Albert Einstein, “a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”.
Failure isn’t always a bad thing. It is an essential part of the decision-making processes. The trick is to fail at the small things, so you’ll have a good grounding for the bigger things. Like any good poker player will tell you, by the time you decide to “all in”, you’ve got to be pretty certain that you’re going to win. Unlike poker, you can make lots of inconsequential, little bets beforehand to test the market before you take the big risks in business. The trick is to experiment with small things that don’t upset the core business or put jobs and profit at risk.
If failing was framed as experimenting, we would be more encouraged to keep going. We are encouraged to experiment from an early age. We try different sports, different instruments, different clubs. Experimentation helps us find out what works for us and what we have a natural affinity for. We all know that you have to experiment for a while before you get things right. Failing is experimenting; each time we fail, we find another way not to do something. Only by failing we can learn what doesn’t work.
It is essential for us to embrace experimentation and failure. Ideas usually need re-working and refining. Even those with high ability need not be averse to failure, we all need to put in the hours. Instruments need learning, footballers need coaching and businesses need tweaking. Practice makes perfect, after all. If the core business isn’t affected by mistakes, it’s easy to keep trying new things until you find something that makes a difference.
History is full of successful people who experienced failure. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and failed at his first business. Elvis Presley was fired after just one performance after being told, “you ain’t going nowhere, son”. Walt Disney was sacked by a newspaper because “he lacked imagination.” Think where we would be if these people had given up at the first hurdle.
Organisations need to foster a culture that embraces experimentation and failure. If people get slammed, criticised or fired when things go wrong, they’ll soon stop coming up with ideas. It is as important to reward failure as to encourage risk-taking. Only by taking chances will you reach success. Think of it this way; you’ll never win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. The risk of failure can be paralysing, but without giving it a go, you’ll never reach victory. As the old saying goes, you’ve got to be in it, to win it!