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The Glory of Failure

December 15th, 2009 by Mitch

Perhaps one of the most oft-cited, although poorly researched, cultural challenges facing the UK is the population’s alleged fear of failure. In the 2006 UK Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Report, 36% of respondents indicated that the fear of failure would prevent them from starting a business, versus 21% in the US. This is bolstered by anecdotal evidence, characterised in speeches by prominent politicians, entrepreneurs and educators, which all seem to paint a picture of the UK as a nation of the risk-averse.

However, a healthy attitude towards failure and uncertainty is considered vital to an individual’s capacity to create, innovate and strive for achievement. In the US, many venture capitalists actively seek demonstrations of past failure in their prospective entrepreneurs. Penn State University even has a course for engineering students called Failure 101, encouraging experimentation and radical creativity. Without an appetite for these — and the capacity to absorb the occasional failure that inevitably accompanies trying something new — we deny ourselves the joy of discovery and the resulting benefits for society and ourselves.

The Glory of Failure project, which I started as part of the RSA networks project, aims to turn the conventional notion of failure on its head, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It seeks to explore the benefits of failure — personal growth, introspection, knowledge, etc. –in a witty and engaging fashion, in order to promote a healthy sense of ambition, creativity and innovative spirit. The core element of the programme will be a multi-media campaign and some of the ideas floated so far include the following: Big Confessions, a book and film highlighting the positive failures of celebrities and other individuals; A Big Social Failure, a collaborative website that will provide a virtual channel for individuals to contribute stories and learn from the failures of others; and A Week of Failure, community-based events encouraging experimentation and creativity, perhaps run in conjunction with Enterprise Week.

Ideally, these will be bolstered by a programme targeted at organisations to promote an environment tolerant of failure and uncertainty as expected by-products of innovation. These could include tools or methodologies for more innovation-friendly risk assessments, project postmortems, performance development regimes, and organisational structures and processes. These will be based on the best thinking on innovation in organisations, and case studies from respected leaders and institutions on how they incorporate a healthy tolerance of failure into their ethic.

Pulling this off will require skills and involvement from sectors and disciplines such as sociologists, media professionals and policymakers. The RSA, with its diverse Fellowship, reputable brand and willingness to tackle challenging subjects vital to the UK’s social and economic success, is ideally positioned to address this national bugbear.

Changing broad cultural attitudes is extremely challenging, but it is not impossible. It requires capturing the imagination and attention of the public, particularly young people and those who influence them, through channels and messages of their own devising. That is what the Glory of Failure aims to accomplish.

This is a cross-posting with an article published in the RSA Journal.

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