Fear of Failure

Do you fear failure?

I used to – but no more.

Having been brought up in South Africa in a culture where failure was met with physical punishment in school, in sport, at home and in military training, the fear of failure severely impacted my risk appetite and affected my decision making. Fear was seldom a good motivator in my everyday life – perhaps with the exception of the military where the consequence of failure could genuinely cost lives – but that’s a story for a different day.

As someone who has spent my life pushing the boundaries of innovation within organisations, one of my constant challenges has been to shift the mindsets of those that become paralysed by a fear of failure. Often, the higher up the organisation, the worse it becomes. The very decision makers and influencers that have the power to affect change, fear the reputational damage that failure might bring and so they will do everything in their power NOT to fail – often with dire consequences.

It may sound strange that I’m saying that NOT failing is bad – surely NOT failing means you have succeeded?


You see, the fear of failure doesn’t motivate people to succeed – it motivates them to get something done NO MATTER WHAT THE CONSEQUENCES – even if it’s not the right thing to do …….

Just that one thing, nothing else, no creativity involved as that would increase the risk of failure.

That’s not the same as succeeding.

How many times have you heard of / come across / been involved in a project or initiative in your organisation where fairly early on pretty much everyone started saying it was “doomed to fail”?

Then the directive comes from the top “this CANNOT FAIL” – so more money / more resources are thrown at it – compromises are made and ripples become waves that crash through the organisation – just so that the project DOES NOT FAIL and the thing that was set out to be done, is done.

Once it’s over – it’s often quickly forgotten about – nobody ever speaks about it again – it didn’t happen – it’s erased from corporate memory and very often things go back to just the way they were – but of course it didn’t FAIL did it? People get fired for failure, don’t they?

If you want your organisation to be more innovative, you need to get over your fear of failure.

You NEED to be prepared to fail, often and fast, in order to succeed. You need to iterate and experiment to learn what works and what doesn’t. Out of this will come success – but not everything you try will be a success – in fact the reverse is probably true – very little will be a success – but what a success it will be in the end!

James Dyson spent 15 years creating 5,127 prototypes of his now famous bagless vacuum cleaner …………. let that sink in for a bit.

Innovation requires failure – it demands it.

When I went to university, one of my lecturers taught me to look at things through a different lens – to frame every new concept as a “hypothesis” to either be proved or disproved. In this way, there is no failure, only learning.

I have successfully applied this to my work ever since – when I propose something innovative to an employer (or these days a client), I frame the options as hypotheses to be tested. They establish the parameters that are governed by their risk appetite – time, cost, effort, reputational damage etc etc – which sets the boundaries for the project. In this way there is a time or a budget constraint within which to prove or refute something – for example: “the application of IoT technology can reduce cost / increase efficiency in a particular product or service” – and at the conclusion there are learnings which will inform future decisions and strategy which may include implementation or further experimentation and iteration – building on failure for ultimate success.

Clients now accept that not everything will work out as they might have wished it or expected it to – but that’s the point …….you will never know until you try – just don’t let the fear of failure stand in your way!


Header image (modified) credit: Pixel Addict via Foter.com / CC BY