Long ago, fear served a pretty good purpose for our prehistoric ancestors. In a world where a snarling sabre tooth tiger might leap out of the undergrowth at any given minute, fear would ensure they took the sensible and very necessary precautions to avoid been savaged by an apex predator.
So being cautious and attuned to risk was a good thing. When daily threats were largely physical, fear went a long way to ensuring the generally agreeable state of ‘being alive’ didn’t end every time you stepped out the cave.
By contrast, we 21st century human beings have far less to be afraid of. Sure, the modern world can still be a physically hostile place at times, but by and large threats of a physical nature aren’t what we spend most of our time fretting over.
Instead, we’re bothered by something far more existential. Something our ancestors might never have had the luxury of contemplating in their own turbulent world: the fear of failing.
How We Learn to Fear Failure
While physical fears develop during infancy, those connected with failure really begin to ramp up when we hit school.
Early in our education, we’re taught that mistakes are to be avoided. By the time we reach adolescence most of us are running plain scared of getting things wrong.
So the world ends up being populated by people largely looking for ways to generally avoid messing stuff up. It all comes down to the sad fact that pretty much all of our anxieties in life are learned.
But there’s a very different side to failure. It’s a lesson we’re not often taught in school, and it’s this: failure can actually be quite a good thing.
The Benefits of Failing and Taking Risks
For many of us, taking a big step outside our comfort zone can bring us out in a cold sweat. Fear of the unknown and doing something out of the ordinary often holds us back. We imagine what the consequences might be and as a result don’t push ourselves in many areas of our lives. Because of a thought.
And so perversely, it’s thinking about failure, rather than actual failure that causes most of the problems.
The result? Many people never achieve their true potential.
Of course, just like our cave-dwelling ancestors, risks can end in failure. But the results are rarely as catastrophic as getting eaten by a pesky sabre tooth tiger. And so unlike our ancestors, adopting a risk-avoidance approach to everyday life doesn’t always serve us well. In fact, rolling the dice now and then can lead to us not only surviving, but thriving.
Ignoring conventional wisdom and taking the odd gamble is how some of the world’s great innovators reached the pinnacle in their field. Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – they all took risks in the pursuit of creating something amazing.
But here’s the really important thing: they didn’t do it alone. They created organisations where something essential was allowed to happen. They ensured a vital ingredient was baked into their ethos that had a profound and lasting impact on their ultimate success. They gave people the freedom to fail.
What is Freedom to Fail?
Sometimes, fear stops an organisation making sweeping changes that may prove beneficial because of certain inherent risks. But more commonly, it stops the minutiae of everyday office life being shaken up once in a while.
This is where freedom to fail comes in. It involves creating a culture where taking risks and failing is seen as an inevitable by-product of success. And it can lead to great innovation.
There are various new business clubs and development companies celebrating failure in all its glory. In fact, there’s even a startup business group called ‘f**k ups’ that get together to share their lapses.
A more corporate, PR friendly approach to dealing with mistakes comes from the movie studio – Pixar.
Ed Catmull – the studios co-founder and President of Walt Disney, believes embracing risk is an essential part of the studios creativity and success.
In a post for Harvard Business Review, Catmull describes the role of managers in this process.
“Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur… we as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done.”
One approach he advocates is getting people to show ‘work in progress’ – a process he believes is hugely beneficial in the quest for innovation.
“Showing unfinished work each day liberates people to take risks and try new things because it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.”
In creative industries, this approach to embracing risk can lead to exciting new ideas that may ultimately transform a business. But it all starts with the powers that be. Managers need to create the right tone, empowering their teams and making it ‘okay’ to get things wrong from time to time.
What Does Freedom to Fail Look Like?
This freedom to fail approach can function in pretty much any working environment. If you’re a manager of a sales team and you’re out on a client pitch with a trainee, you may be tempted to step in when they make a mistake, or potentially take over completely. You might want to jump in to close a deal that’s hanging in the balance.
But stepping back and giving your trainee the opportunity to succeed will pay off in the long term. They’ll be buoyed up from a success that’s their own, and feel confident that they’ve got the support of their manger. Any training tips and advice can be given outside the meeting.
So, how can you walk this philosophy through a business?
One such example is of a company that needed to encourage new business development. They wanted to increase activity and cold sales calls during a group new business initiative, so they offered an incentive: rewarding the person who received the most no’s from potential prospects.
The results proved the formula worked. At the end of the initiative, the person who ended up receiving the highest number of rejections was also the person that made the most appointments.
The stigma of ‘no’ had been banished.
This kind of approach is just one way a business was able to begin cultivating a freedom to fail culture. Or in other words – a freedom to learn culture.
As for implementing this approach in your own business? It really comes down to working out what works best for you and your teams. But broadly speaking, it involves a shift in mindset and appreciating that freedom to fail really does give oil to innovation in industry.
By letting people feel making a mistake is okay, and that instant perfection isn’t always expected, they’ll be more likely to take on extra responsibility, try new things, perhaps even suggest bold ideas that may once have been held back for fear of rejection.
And most importantly, they’ll be encouraged to keep trying in the relentless pursuit to succeed – all thanks to having the shackles of ‘getting things wrong’ removed.