May 27, 2013 16 Comments
“I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying. I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time
I have long believed that people who do not make mistakes are people who are not trying hard enough, and are people who are unlikely to succeed in their endeavours.
I have never admired Steve Jobs for his leadership, as he was a despotic egomaniac , but I certainly have admired him for the fact that he was a brilliantly unreasonable agent for change. Before returning to Apple from the wilderness in 1996, and flooding the world with iPods, iPhones and iPads, he made lots of mistakes along the way including bringing Apple to its knees in 1985, when he was unceremoniously ousted by the board.
I have always told my people that they would not get fired for making honest mistakes, as long as they learned from it so as to not have repetitions, as I have long believed that if we could try 10 different things and six or seven of them worked, we would be well ahead. The reality being that we would not have achieved the six or seven successes if we had not tried the ten. The problem is that many people are too scared to try anything new because of a fear of the repercussions for failure.
The truth is that we tend to learn more from our mistakes than we learn from our successes, as success can sometimes even blind us to the fact that it may have been more a result of circumstance and timing rather than personal skill.
I have a good friend who made an embarrassing amount of money in the Sydney property market in the late 1970s, as did most other people at the time, as Sydney went through a massive property boom. Sadly this success taught him little, as rather than accepting that “all boats rise in a high tide”, he started to believe that his success had to be due to his personal brilliance, so he then proceeded to lose everything that he had made in the previous decade, by playing the futures and currency markets for just one year. This failure was a better learning exercise, and he has now managed to rebuild his personal wealth, with a better understanding of his own limitations as well as his skills.
The problem starts with most educational systems that tend to encourage conformity much more than creativity, as very few schools and few teachers find it easy to handle students who are different. As a result, children who do not fit into the “normal mould” are generally not accepted, and tend to be pushed to the side, while the focus stays on the herd. The emphasis is much more on learning to be right rather than learning to be creative or innovative, and if they then move into the business world, they tend to hit these same attitudes.
There was a wonderful example of this in Australia in the 1970s, which was so good that I have long wondered whether it was just an urban myth. A question in an Australian history exam said simply “Take any year and discuss sheep and sheep distribution in Australia”. One student, as his answer, wrote “100 BC, no sheep”. He didn’t give an answer that was acceptable to the guardians of educational rightness at the time, however he was totally accurate in his analysis, as sheep didn’t arrive in Australia till 1788 with the first fleet. I am sure that his creativity was not rewarded then, and I have no doubt that neither would it be rewarded today.
I find that most companies also tend to reward those who protect the status quo rather than those who want to experiment with change, thereby creating a culture where any failure is a serious career limiter. This will then ensure that people become strongly risk averse and will then only do what has been done before (see “If you always do what you have always done” posted April 29, 2013). Building a culture that is risk averse means that managers will tend to recruit and/or promote only those people that fit the existing mould and who will be unlikely to test the existing boundaries. This protection of “the way we do things around here” will start on day one with the induction of new employees, to put into them the fear of being or thinking differently.
At our induction programmes in Asia Pacific in the 1990s, when we were growing by 60+% annually, I would personally start every induction programme. I would tell the intake to take out one of their new SAP business cards, to cross out their official title, and replace it with “agent for change”, as what we did yesterday to be successful would not work today, and what we did today would not work tomorrow. I would also encourage them to be not scared to make mistakes, as the management believed that people who did not make any mistakes at all, were less valuable to us in the long run than those who were not scared to experiment. We did everything that we could do to try to help them remove the fear of making mistakes, as we needed them to be prepared to question what we did if they felt there could be a better way. Our expression was that “sacred cows made great hamburgers” (with apologies to our Hindu employees).
Every company needs people who are courageous enough to try new things, are not scared to question and challenge the status quo, who are unreasonable enough to drive change and who therefore are likely to regularly fail, safe in the belief that they are doing what is needed.
Someone wise once said “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather that something is more important than fear”.