I just wrapped up a week-long trip to Silicon Valley. Despite traveling here probably 70 times or more over the years, I always feel the special energy of the place. And it energizes me in turn.
Lots has been written about Silicon Valley’s culture of innovation and the appreciation of good ideas and smart people. But what distinguishes this place the most, in my opinion, is the acceptance of failure.
Failure is the inevitable by-product of innovation. After all, most innovation fails to live up to its commercial promise. But nowhere else in the world is there a systemic lack of the “failure stigma”. And somehow this unleashes a form of creativity that is less constrained by concerns about eventual success or failure.
An example: have you ever been in a brainstorming meeting with colleagues? Where you came out of the meeting with some really good ideas? Did you notice that few if any of those ideas were implemented? Maybe it’s the “failure stigma” that stood in the way.
I think managers and executives are the source of the stigma. And those who punish failure and reward success in binary terms are losing the subtleties of two things. First, why was a success a success? We often don’t actually know. So how do we know how to replicate success?
Second, what can be learned from the failures to apply to the future? It’s not “don’t screw up again”. Though these are the signals we tend to send.
So, should the rest of us turn into wanton risk-takers? Not exactly, given the cultures of the many other places in which we live. But a good start would be to create a culture that inspects past failures and seeks to learn. Without punishment.