San Francisco days and the “failure stigma”

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.

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One thought on “San Francisco days and the “failure stigma”

  1. This is an excellent observation, Don. Now that I am managing a team, I am striving to create an environment that lets creative ideas flow — and ensures some of them get implemented. One company that have gotten this right is Google. A friend that worked there for years told me how at any given time there were hundreds of ideas being tested. Those that showed a potential for future ROI were considered, and a few of these implemented. They know that a small number actually succeed. But it’s a calculated bet.

    My son’s teacher told us something wonderful during open house earlier this month. When she shows a child how to do something and asks them to follow her lead, instead of saying, “Now you try it (which implies that you might fail)”, she says, “Now you can do it.”

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