You can do a lot of things right – and still fail. That’s because success and failure are two sides of the same coin. Nevertheless, in many companies failure is stigmatized, especially in Europe.
Unfortunately, according to the way many supervisors think, the person who fails has also failed personally. I must admit that for a long time, I used to think this way as well. Yet people can only develop and grow if they’re curious. You can only learn by trying out new things and especially by making mistakes. Evolution has already proven that to us. And in times of a – primarily digital – start-up culture, those of us working in well-established companies should also rethink our attitude towards failing. Failure needs to mean failing successfully.
A culture of failure is often referred to in this context, yet the term is misleading. That’s because you can do things wrong if you don’t work carefully or have the right skills. Or you can do everything right and think things through but still fail when forces beyond your control interfere with your success. The first way of failing is simply unwise. But the second is often necessary for success. We can learn from both.
More courage to be wrong
So what does it take? In my view, we need a culture in which not only success is recognized. And that calls primarily for courage – courage to try something and to recognize if it was a mistake. This is also why courage is one of our company values at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. Employees can lay claim to this.
Generally speaking, we need to pay more attention to assessing the way projects are set up and implemented, and not just whether they succeeded or failed. If we don’t, then we’ll rely too strongly on another factor that always plays a role, namely the bit of luck that every project needs.
For a research-driven company, the principle of trial and error is nothing new or something we need to copy from the start-up scene. Trial and error are part of a researcher’s everyday life. Just recently, I discussed this in my blog on “Curiosity”.. Here, I stressed that curiosity is the only way for us to advance discoveries in research, for instance, in order to promote technological and social progress. That’s why at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, we support and encourage our employees to take calculated risks and to make good use of their curiosity.
“To move towards a culture of failure, we need to endorse courage and the principle of trial and error and apply our own curiosity in a positive way.”
Trial and error as a part of the corporate culture
But what’s really new is this: In an increasingly complex world here it’s becoming more and more difficult to plan, the use of trial and error is no longer standard only in research. The practice has now spread throughout the entire company. Or at least that’s what it should do. However, as a study by the University of Hohenheim has revealed, entrepreneurial failure is seen as being far worse than personal failure (a summary of the study entitled “Good mistakes, bad mistakes” is available in German at neue-unternehmerkultur.de). Only one out of every two people surveyed can derive something positive from the failure of a company. Yet overall, 80% of those surveyed see failure as an opportunity for introspection and reflection. They also believe that in the long run, this can lead to positive results. One very encouraging finding from the studywas that young people in particular have a comparatively positive and tolerant attitude towards failure.
Failure is becoming sexy
That’s also something the growing popularity of so-called “Fuck-up Nights” is showing. Young founders speak openly about how they failed miserably with their ideas. The idea behind these events is said to have originated in the local start-up scene of Mexico in 2012 and has meanwhile spread globally. Whether in New York, Rio, Tokyo or Frankfurt, in most cases young founders meet and tell their audience about their failed attempts as entrepreneurs. Incidentally, in Darmstadt as well, at our Innovation Center. It seems as though failure is becoming sexy.
However, the situation gets tricky when failure is hyped into a coolness factor on social media, blowing things out of proportion. Because after all, success it the ultimate aim of every undertaking. But if we manage to create an open culture of failure and see failure as an expression of learning, then events like these will be invaluable.
To move towards a culture of failure, we need to endorse courage and the principle of trial and error and apply our own curiosity in a positive way. This will allow us to successfully develop companies further in line with the start-up spirit on everyone’s lips today. And in my opinion, that’s the only choice we have given the fundamental changes that globalization and digitalization are creating. Failure needs to mean failing successfully.
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