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Stories & Thoughts 

Nine is the magic number

If nine out of ten startups fail...what's your number?

Failure has not traditionally been something we look to as a measure of success, but in the startup world it may be worn as a badge of pride and a sign of lessons learned. Serial entrepreneurs have long shared stories of coming to the end of their runways or irreconcilable breakups with a cofounder; those who have tried, tried, and tried again may be considered reliable veterans, from whom we can all learn - rather than tripping over the rather binary fact of an idea not working in the first place.

From the work of Eric Ries in his easy-to-access Lean Startup, the popularity of accelerator F*** Up Nights, and the rise to stardom of those elusive unicorns and founder-celebrities, the buzz and taste of possibility has seeped its way into corporate life as well. Starting out in the cloistered arena of innovation and tech teams, we now see the requirement to fail fast and build an agile culture being hardwired into leadership job descriptions and organisational behaviours. If we are to believe that 'everyone's a leader', we need to understand how and why we want to fail.

  • Why is it helpful to talk about failure?

Innovation is critical to staying ahead of the game, changing consumer demands, and taking on new markets. Teams and their leaders are expected to do their day job - deliver ever-growing results - and come up with a shockingly good new idea. Startups have a freedom in that they have something to prove and aren't hindered by past success. It's when they have something to loose that innovation and new ideas can start to slow down or dry up; when tracked against results, people can become fixated on 'more than' rather than 'that's curious'. A constant state of curiosity requires a level of corporate conviction that getting it wrong is sometimes required to get it more right. This conviction requires a commitment and a true working culture that openly supports people through failure and takes them out the other side. Curiosity and innovation requires resilience - and a bucket load at that.

  • Building resilience is a corporate responsibility

The neuroscience shows that resilience is formed by both nature and nurture, continuing to fluctuate throughout our lives, growing in adversity, strengthening as expand our comfort zone, and being reinforced as we learn from our mistakes. As burnout in one person is the canary in your coal mine for a wider spread systemic challenge, so is building resilience your systemic antidote. Have a look at your teams today, what are your leaders doing to proactively nurture resilience, building capacity and capability through progress, opportunity, and making it safe to try and get it wrong?

  • Why do we want to shout about our mistakes?

In our increasingly fast-paced, ever-changing, and complex world of business, teams, leaders, and individuals at every level need to acknowledge what works and what doesn't before the risk becomes a reality.

Businesses now expect a level of hyper-vigilance around threats and opportunities, inserting metrics and measures wherever they can to note success. The flip side of this success is that not everything can demonstrate a "Nike tick" level of exponential growth, but more often than not the RAG system must never show red and your boss only wants you to bring them well thought through solutions with not one whiff of a problem left unsolved. When you can never get it wrong, how on earth do you right your ship before it takes on too much water?

  • Performance Management is NOT about failure

Accountability and performance management rank highly in Google search terms and often install a sense of dread into managers, no matter their seniority. We ask for people to own their actions and delegate responsibility to the lowest levels as we know, or think we know, that this is the way to empower and engage. In our best of intentions, we want performance management to be a continual state of being, where we all enjoy open and honest conversations about progress and big ideas...but something gets in our way. As we shy away from our perceived failures and present only good news stories, we push effective performance management further and further along the line until it becomes a monstrous beast that no one wants to tackle. What if you could talk about where you got it wrong and what you'd like to do about it in a timely, relevant, and meaningful way? What could you learn together? What impact would that make to your team's psychological safety? What awkward conversations could you prevent from happening, because you had better conversations in the first place?

My number is far.

In her ever-so successful podcast How to Fail Elizabeth Day interviews ever-so successful people on when they have failed. But the focus is not on the failure of these failures, but what their failures have taught them about how to succeed better. Looking back over all the things I have tried to start and failed to succeed I reckon I'm on about five. If the research is to be believed, this means that I have a way to go before I find my magic number and land wherever I'm meant to be. But if work and life are a continual set of learnings and new experiences then this presents opportunity and growth, rather than a sense of not having made it or failure. My own personal secret sauce is a relentless curiosity that tries - and sometimes fails - to learn from what's gone before and explore what's next with an open and curious mind.

In a world so focused on never-ending success, how can we as leaders commit to leading with curiosity, managing performance well, and use our failures to succeed better?


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