Failure Is Fine, if You Learn From it

Ann All

Could it be that Silicon Valley's secret to success is failure? While that sounds counterintuitive, Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, makes a pretty compelling case in a TechCrunch column contrasting Silicon Valley's reaction to business failure to attitudes in Japan and Germany.


It isn't failure itself that's a predictor of success, of course, but the cultural acceptance of failure as a natural bump along the road to success. Failure carries a heavy stigma in Japan, writes Wadhwa, which has made it tough for technology entrepreneurs to get startups off the ground. Wadhwa relates the experiences of Jeff Char, CEO of Tokyo-based incubator J-Seed Ventures. He says:

In the Japanese tech industry, the playing field is wide open. There is also no shortage of experienced engineering talent. But, because society doesn't tolerate failure or respect entrepreneurs, Char can't get engineers to leave their industry jobs to join his startups. He also can't find any experienced entrepreneurs to lead his companies: once entrepreneurs fail, they are out of the game. Hence most ventures in Japan are managed by first-time entrepreneurs. And of course they make the same mistakes as their predecessors -- because there is no one for them to learn from.

In contrast, he says failure is "a badge of honor in Silicon Valley," with entrepreneurs quick to relate stories of their business failures "because to have failed means to have gained experience and to have learned."


I agree with Wadhwa-within reason.


Earlier this year, I shared a The Next Big Thing blog post by Google's Don Dodge, in which he shared Google's tolerance for failure as a necessary part of innovation. Some nuggets of Google philosophy shared by Dodge: Set the bar so high it seems out of reach-on purpose. Make it clear that achieving 65 percent of the impossible is better than 100 percent of the ordinary.


I also shared an article about a presentation given by Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group and author of "Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead." One of her suggestions for achieving open leadership (a great way to encourage innovation) was to embrace failure. She advised the presentation attendees to record failures as well as successes to "stay authentic and open to the fact that not everything succeeds."


Still, I don't think companies want to celebrate failure, lest it become too accepted by employees. I think acceptance is only helpful if you analyze failures and actually learn from them, something that is much easier said than done.

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