Fear and Failure

February 27, 2010

There were several common themes running through the talks at the BrainFoodStore digital conference last week, one of which the speakers themselves picked up on in the panel discussion at the end: fear of failure.

They were responding specifically to audience questions around clients and companies who are afraid to take the leap into social media, where the rules are fluid and the risks seem high. But this fear of failure can be found in many other aspects of our business too and the effects are potentially fatal.

Whether it’s a company culture, or a defining characteristic of a client-agency relationship – how we approach and think about failure is a marker of whether or not we’ll ultimately succeed.

Fear is a plague in any organisation. If an environment is full of people who are quick to criticise, jump into the negative, or actively seek out points to challenge, it’s no wonder that the resultant work becomes cautious and insipid. It doesn’t matter whether these critiques are valid; what matters is the effect they have on innovation.

When fear takes over, tasks are completed with the aim of satisfying expectations, not pushing boundaries. People move away from imagination and into bureaucracy, because accepted ideas and standardised methods won’t garner recrimination. We over-research, over-rationalise and push out decisions because we’re not ready.  (See Claire’s previous post on the tyranny of imperfect thoughts).

Martin Bailie insightfully pointed out that if you wait too long to try, you’ll make all your mistakes in public. By the time you decide to catch up with the world, everyone else will be ten steps ahead of you. The lesson is obvious – if failure is a necessary step on the road to success, you need to try and fail early.

Banish fear, embrace failure and learn while the stakes are low.

Neasa

On a related note, JK Rowling’s commencement speech to Harvard on “The Fringe Benefits of Failure” is a really inspiring personal account – well worth a watch.

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