By: Michael Kanazawa
People like to say, “failure is not an option,” in an attempt to motivate greatness and breakthrough results. However, like so many popular business phrases, this one doesn’t even make sense in real life. This phrase was made popular in the Hollywood version of Apollo 13, but business isn’t a movie and employees aren’t actors. We all lead in the real world where not everything gets resolved in a happy ending in a neat 90 minute story. Successful people and companies know that failure is always a potential and it is not something than can or should be ignored.
The iPhone is viewed as a huge success for Apple, but do you remember their first attempt at a “smart device?” Apple executives discovered that the Newton was a failure like a brick, not a nice ripe apple, falling on their head. It was a complete market failure. The iPhone could have been the same kind of failure, but Apple took a run at it anyway…and won big.
Many leaders inadvertently drive a risk-averse and incremental culture by either sending non-verbal messages that it is not OK to fail or acutally use the bold phrase “failure is not an option.”
This month Vinod Khosla, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, was recognized by the Asian Pacific Fund at their 12th annual gala event. His accomplishments include founding Sun Microsystems and serving as a General Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. I was fortunate to be at the gala event with him and listened carefully as he described some keys to success. Being a very down-to-earth leader he was quite open in sharing how failures had shaped his success.
One of the things that really stuck with me that night was Vinod’s encouragement to, “only do things that are worth failing at.” What he meant was that if you attempt things that will result in big wins, then you have to be willing to risk failing big as well. Too often leaders fear failure so much that they create business cultures where people will not risk failure to try and achieve a big success. Results become just incremental gains and more aggressive competitors make inroads and eventually pass the company. So although it seems to be a rallying cry to ensure success, the phrase “failure is not an option” in fact guarantees failure in the end.
Are you taking on the types of challenges that will lead to great successes? Are you willing to stare down potential failure? Each year I set a limited set of personal and business goals and this year my theme as I begin to contemplate my 2009 plans is to do things that are worth failing at. Failure is always a potential outcome, but it only becomes an intentional option when you stop attempting to succeed with your big ideas. As you make your personal career and business plans for 2009, keep this in mind.