As humans we are hardwired to avoid failing, and when we do the experience is often shrouded in shame and secrecy. But one University of Canterbury business academic is teaching students to harness the power of failure, in the name of success.
The “F” word has long been taboo, especially in business. But now, exploring failure is being actively encouraged by some of the most successful companies in the world.
In Silicon Valley, where innovation thrives, failing is an aspiration. As Elon Musk says, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating.”
Fail parties are a common occurrence, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is not only known to hire those behind previous failed start ups, he often celebrates the company’s failure in his letters to shareholders.
And it’s this notion of fallibility which underpins Dr Christian Walsh’s paper, Creative Challenge, at the University of Canterbury. Here, MBA students – who are working on existing businesses or potential ones – are pushed outside of their comfort zones to achieve failure.
Why? Because we are conditioned to avoid failure, which sees many people safely maintaining the status quo.
“The problem is not that you aim too high and fail, the problem is you aim too low and succeed,” says Dr Walsh.
“Of course, not all failure is necessarily good failure. What we are looking at is intelligent failure.”
This, he says, is when ideas are deliberately tested, and failure is identified early.
“We often learn far more from these intelligent failures than by playing it safe,” he says.
Not only are lessons learnt from the failure – about products, systems or ideas – but a climate which celebrates, or at least tolerates, pulling the pin on a futile endeavour saves resources, too.
“In business, being decisive is often seen as strength, but saying you don’t know the answers is actually the strongest leadership.”
The concept is explored by a number of talking heads around the world. The head of Google’s X, Astro Teller’s TED Talk, The Unexpected Benefit of Celebrating Failure has
been viewed more than 2.5 million times.
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson says creating a fearless climate at work is the prerequisite for greater innovation and growth.
Leaning into failure takes perseverance, says Dr Walsh.
“There is the idea of having grit, being able to push through those failures and persevering to learn the lessons and develop the ability to be creative.”
This leads to a greater sense of self-belief, and of humility.
“You have to be willing to take a chance and admit you don’t know. And even more challenging than admitting you don’t know, is seeking out what you don’t know.”
The concept of embracing failure of course has parallels outside of businesses, too.
“It taps into our vulnerability, we have to be willing to be wrong to find out something new,” he says.
Dr Walsh graduated from UC with a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours. After working as an electrical engineer for 10 years he returned to UC to do an MBA, followed by a PhD focussing on entrepreneurship.
Now an academic in UC Business School’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, Dr Walsh was recently the successful recipient of a Fellowship of Advance Higher Education by AdvanceHE, a charity based in the United Kingdom.
The charity recognises tertiary educators who demonstrate commitment to teaching, learning and the student experience, through engagement in a practical process that encourages research, reflection and development.
So, what is his own experience of failure?
“When we first ran the course it was a bit of an experiment, and some things failed,” he says.“We had some people who were going to be embarking on things which were too risky, so we had to change how things were going to work.”
Given his recent accolades, it sounds like there really is success in failure then.