How I learned to love failure … and the success that followed

Cultivating a corporate culture of being welcoming and open to mistakes can be compatible with one that values stability and control

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 9:47am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2017, 9:47am

In the latest study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, companies in two Indian cities – Bangalore and Mumbai – registered the greatest confidence in how their local environment supports digital transformation. Five other Asian cities including Beijing, Jakarta, Manila, New Delhi and Shanghai ranked in the top 10.

Yet there were six Asian cities ranked in the bottom 10, most of whom were surprisingly forerunners in Asia’s economic boom – Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, Taipei, Tokyo, and Yokohama.

To resolve this contradiction, we need to understand that a catalyst underlying Asia’s economic transformation from third world to first is a motivation not to lose an opportunity.

While driven to want to achieve more, some Asian cultures may have cultivated a “take the bulls by the horn” attitude. But others may have been held back by a lack of confidence and a culture that sees errors or failures as a blemish against someone’s name. The notion of “face saving” or not wanting to be publicly embarrassed, a social phenomenon prevalent in many Asian countries, is consistent with mistake avoidance.

But in a fast changing, so-called VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) where innovation is key, we need to embrace making mistakes as part of change.

Put another way, making mistakes is crucial for innovation. As Albert Einstein said: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” After all, trying new things is literally what innovation is about.

Error management

In my research at the National University of Singapore Business School, I studied entrepreneurs around the world. I have seen how fear of failure leads to lower levels of entrepreneurship and is directly related to lack of innovation. In environments where fear of failure is high, particularly because errors are scorned and punished, it takes a brave soul to venture far from what is familiar.

Making mistakes is generally viewed as embarrassing, messy, and something that is rarely easy to deal with. This does not sit well with a culture that values order, stability and seeks to avoid risk.

But fear of failure, like a fear of public speaking, can be overcome. The key is developing a culture of error management, through which mistakes become a learning experience and something to be valued.

Error management puts mistakes and failures in a positive light and removes the stigma or shame surrounding them. As a result individuals are more comfortable pointing them out and less likely to try to cover them up, meaning their negative impact is reduced or even mitigated entirely.

This also means that mistakes can be controlled and are not repeated, because when mistakes are welcomed and seen as educational and valuable, people are more comfortable discussing them.

Break things

During Facebook’s early days of breakneck growth, its approach was summed up in its unofficial mantra “move fast and break things”. This came to embody the disruptive, freewheeling approach of Silicon Valley in general – what mattered was new products, even if they didn’t work entirely perfectly.

Now, as a more mature organisation, Facebook has evolved from to a more pragmatic (and shareholder-friendly) “move fast with stable infra” – in other words, making sure things work as they are supposed to.

Certainly a company like Facebook with billions in reserves can better afford to take more risks than a profitless start-up. But the approach and mindset has lessons for businesses of any size.

Nurturing a culture of error management means educating people that errors can be managed positively. It means seeing limits to an individual’s current knowledge and a desire to learn and explore as attributes that should be welcomed and praised.

Making mistakes is part and parcel of pushing ourselves into new situations that can be explored and where real innovation can take place. With this mindset, individuals and businesses learn to cope with errors quickly and the negative consequences can be stopped or controlled.

Lost opportunities

On the other hand, a conscious effort to avoid errors inherently reduces the area into which we allow ourselves to venture. By restricting our exploration space to only “safe” and familiar areas we are comfortable with, we are cutting ourselves off from the opportunity to innovate.

Similarly if mistakes and errors are not openly communicated we deprive ourselves of opportunities to learn and poor, perhaps even dangerous, decisions will follow.

The world’s worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine is a case in point. It was the result of a cascade of errors that began with a few small mistakes. Likewise, many of the world’s deadliest air crashes have been blamed on similar chain reactions, where an initial, minor error was not quickly addressed leading to further and increasingly serious mistakes.

If one does not communicate mistakes because one is afraid to show failure, such a chain reaction is more likely to appear. But with an effective, open error management culture in place, small mistakes can be prevented from snowballing into larger and potentially disastrous ones.

In today’s tech-driven, VUCA world, organisations and economies that will thrive are the ones that do not fear exploring new things and have the confidence to exploit or take advantage of the innovations that arise. The ones that discourage people from making mistakes and learning from them will be outsmarted.

A culture of being welcoming and open to mistakes can be compatible with one that values stability and control. Asians are standing right at the doorstep of change. It is up to us to decide whether to enter or not.

Professor Michael Frese is head of the Department of Management and Organisation at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.