“Tis a lesson you should heed:
Try, try, try again.
If at first you don’t succeed,
Try, try, try again.”
Proverb by William Edward Hickson
This age-old adage is the precursor to the well-oiled term in innovation circles; ‘failure and innovation go hand in hand’. I promise, this is not another innovation article about how we all need to embrace failure in order to innovate better and more successfully. A lot has already been written on the role of failure within the innovation process, and there ought to be no doubt or contention that failure is an integral part of a healthy innovation culture. I want to explore this topic from a different angle. To kick this off I will draw on another proverb, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and explore the topic of failure, by looking at how we communicate and discuss failure in a true and meaningful way.
In early October 2017, I spoke at an INSEAD business school entrepreneurship and innovation event in Madrid. It was an interesting few days, held in the Accenture Digital Hub in Madrid. This thought piece isn’t a write up of my session however, but is inspired by another session that I attended whilst at the conference. The session was entitled “Failure, Ego, Health & Startup.” The topic piqued my interest, the session itself really made me think and the thoughts and observations emerging from the discussion serve as the foundation for this piece.
To set the scene for the discussion, are you familiar with the concept of Fuck-up Nights? I will assume you have all clicked the link (who wouldn’t with a name like that?!), so hope you make it back for the rest of this article…..welcome back! In case you didn’t venture off into the world of f**k ups, here is what it is all about; ‘Fuck-up Nights is a global movement and event series that shares stories of professional failure. Each month, in events across the globe, we get three to four people to get up in front of a room full of strangers to share their own professional fuck-up. The stories of the business that crashes and burns, the partnership deal that goes sour, the product that has to be recalled, we tell them all.’
Sharing stories of professional failure. We need to be doing more of this within our businesses and wider, surely?
There is a risk that this may sound like another clichéd approach to celebrating failure. It isn’t. The session in Madrid, which leaned on some of the format of FU nights, was a series of honest, from the heart, no punches held stories of genuine failure, from people who at some stage in their professional career have snatched defeat from the jaws of success, who were riding high and fell back to earth. These were not structured or presented, but narrated, discussed and then sharing happened. Questions abounded. The room lifted, and what could have been a very downbeat session was possibly one of the most impactful, useful, potentially even uplifting sessions I have ever attended at a conference.
Steffan Bankier, one of the founders of the Fuck-up Nights, explains the concept in an award winning 2015 Huffington Post article as, “it’s about making it ok to talk about mistakes. No successful person has gotten to where they are without running into major road blocks. Having them talk about it openly on stage helps remove the shame and embrace that it’s ok, and almost beneficial in some cases, to fuck up.”
There are huge parallels between the entrepreneur and the intrapreneurial cultures we wish to curate and foster within our global organisations. The need to fail as part of the process of innovating for the future must be underpinned by similar structures for sharing these failures without stigma or judgement. How else can we learn? How else can we prove that it is ok to try? How else can we live by the mantra of try, try again? After all, if there really are such close parallels between the world of innovation and entrepreneurship, then the cost of us not doing this is far too big to ignore.
I would love to hear the same honesty and openness from the CEOs of the organisations who failed to invest in the big ideas that ultimately cannibalised them as the founders share at these nights. I encourage everyone reading this to think about your own experiences of failure, both personal and by the wider organisations in which you work or interact. Is it really something openly spoken about? Are lessons really shared in a truly open and honest fashion? No veil, no BS, no stigma? We need to find our own forum to achieve this, after all most HR teams would probably have a heart attack at the idea of a Fuck-up night. If we really want to succeed in our innovation goals, we need to get better at sharing our innovation messes. I welcome your thoughts on how we might approach this and encourage you to look out for relevant meetups in your area.
Here’s to more fuck-ups!
Note from the author: I wrote this piece on World Mental Health Day.
World Mental Health Day:
October 10th each year is World Mental Health Day. The overall objective of this day is to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilise efforts in support of mental health. According to research, entrepreneurs are 30% more likely to experience depression than their non-entrepreneurial counterparts. Most believe that founder depression is caused by an increasingly complex and competitive world. Technology and globalization have made startups riskier and more stressful to manage. Failure is common. At Wazoku we support and champion the World Mental Health Day message and mission.