A Failure to Fail

On Sunday I was on the closing keynote panel at the Social Learning Summit with 5 others, that included professors, consultants and social media experts.  During the discussion we touched upon tolerance for failure.  Historically, failure was looked upon very negatively in academia as well as corporate America.

I shared that in my experience when your company could not tolerate experimentations that may result in failure, its time to get new management.  I think it is the same in school, and while I am not suggesting every student go out and get ‘Fs’ on their report cards, what I do think we need to alter is that teachers recognize students for experimenting and failing.

Part of the mistake I see in teaching people that it is OK to fail is that they need to learn to “fail fast.”  In business, most of the time we do not have time or money to waste on a project whose outcome is likely to be unknown for years or decades.  This is even more true when it comes to the internet and computer technology.  The key is to know when you are failing, to pivot, change hypothesis, and keep experimenting.

Recognizing when you hit that wall and need to change directions can be challenging, but just getting started is even harder.  In my experiences at AOL we had the opportunity to do a lot of skunk works projects, heck even AIM was a skunk works project when it got started.  The challenge was that our management was not tolerant of failure, and over time discouraged employees from taking chances, experimenting and potentially failing.

The next great idea may be sitting in your head right now, but you have to ask yourself are capable of failing?  Are your professors or your company tolerant of taking chances knowing it may lead to zilch?  If not, perhaps someone failed you or your university/company that encouraging exploration is where the next great product may come from.