Innovation studio

5 Tips to Lose the Fear of Failure

19 January 2023

In response to the news coverage surrounding Spaceport Cornwall’s unsuccessful mission attempt, Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, released the following statement via Spaceport Cornwall’s social media channels:

“We are so incredibly proud of everything we have achieved with our partners and friends across the space industry, here in the UK and in the US – we made it to space – a UK first.

Unfortunately, we learned that Virgin Orbit experienced an anomaly which means we didn’t achieve a successful mission.

Today we inspired millions, and we will continue to look to inspire millions more. Not just with our ambition but also with our fortitude. Yes, space is hard, but we are only just getting started.”

Melissa’s words are the embodiment of how organisations with an innovative culture manage failure publicly and are a timely reminder for us all to re-evaluate how we view failure, specifically the relationship between failure and innovation. The two are unavoidably linked. So why is it viewed so negatively? It shouldn’t be.

Nine out of 10 start-ups and innovation projects fail. It is a bleak reality that the chances of success are stacked against us. But does that mean we should not try? Of course not.

In discussion, ATI2’s Innovation Research Champion, Christopher Godolphin was instantly reminded of Einstein’s well-used quote: “Failure is success in progress”. But goes on to remark that “it doesn’t stop the sudden smarting of a goal missed. All innovation must surmount hurdles as the process is iterative and not linear”, he says.

Fear of failure often creates an invisible roadblock preventing new ideas from finding their way off the ground, which is why we have prepared the following 5 tips to help you lose the fear and rise above the naysayers.

1) Embrace experimental learning

Professor Jeanne Liedtka and Professor Edward D. Hess of Batten of the Darden Graduate School of Business have spent combined over 17 years studying innovation leaders, systems, and processes. In an article written for Forbes, Hess says they found that “innovation requires a mindset that rejects the fear of failure and replaces that fear of failure with the joy of exploration and experimental learning”.

They also observed that innovation-led organisations understood that failures are necessary (as much as 90% of the time) so long as the learning comes from small-risk experimentation. In essence, failure is accepted as long as it isn’t too costly for the business and is viewed as a learning opportunity leading to better, more resilient innovation.

2) Research to reduce avoidable risk

Those innovations which are destined to fail usually lack a market need and/or insufficient capital investment. These types of failures can be avoided through research.

“From a research perspective, research can give both primary and secondary results – which in turn give the innovation the best chance of success and will heavily influence the decision-making process”, says Christopher Godolphin, ATI2 Innovation Research Champion.

If the data exists, it can be used to support the progress of innovation, inform the development of an idea, help businesses pivot or put an end to a project which is doomed. Doing your research minimises risk and prevents valuable resources from being invested in ideas which are unlikely to pay off.

But what if the data doesn’t exist? Some things, like the weather, a global pandemic or an “anomaly”, as was the case with Spaceport Cornwall, are unavoidable. “Even with the best teams and the brightest brains behind a venture which is ultimately ground-breaking, no one can predict the unexpected, the unforeseen or even just something breaking”, highlights Chris.

To forge a new path, trailblazers must accept a certain degree of risk.

3) Build a supportive network

Running a start-up and launching a new idea can be a long hard slog, particularly if you are going it alone.

Dave Miller, CEO & Founder of the Cleaner Seas Group, highlighted in a recent case study interview how “When you’re launching a new product, especially in the world of sustainability, during normal day hours you can take knocks and people telling you it’s not a good idea. But when you have access to ATI you get smiley, happy people who believe in your mission, and they empower you and they give you impartial advice, which helps support and recharge your batteries as a CEO ”.

No matter how thick-skinned you think you are, behind most successful innovators is a supportive network. As Dave points out, you may take “knocks”, so it’s important to seek support and get buy-in from your family and friends before setting out on a new venture.

What’s more, this network can be a fantastic sounding board to bounce ideas off and get honest feedback (and criticism) about your idea.

4) Remember it’s not personal

Passionate about your idea? Awesome. But don’t let it cloud your judgement. Hearing negative feedback about your business or idea can feel like a small knife piercing your heart, but the feedback loop is a necessary pain for successful innovation.

Innovators need to recognise when to pivot their idea or move on quickly from a failing one. It doesn’t necessarily mean your idea is bad. But sometimes we learn that the market conditions aren’t right for it to succeed right now.

For example, the first electric vehicle was created by British inventor Robert Anderson in 1832. Electric cars are a great idea, but it took until the second half of the 19th century before more practical versions were built in France and England, and still, today electric cars haven’t reached the peak of the adoption curve. Progress can be slow.

5) Managing failure effectively (and kindly)

Effectively managing the fear of failure is an important skill for any entrepreneur and leader, particularly in the competitive world of business and innovation.

Firstly, to innovate, business leaders need to become comfortable with and embrace intelligent risk-taking, as well as lead by example, by openly acknowledging and demonstrating learning from their own failures. After all, almost all innovations are the result of prior learning from failures.

It’s about being kind to one another. In the same way that one would show empathy and encourage a child learning how to ride a bike, rather than sniggering or criticising each and every time they fall.

Authoritarian environments where mistakes are reprimanded, and responsibilities were taken away rather than training is given (or worse), are likely to develop a risk-averse workforce which is lacking the confidence to put forth and pursue innovative ideas.

To build thriving innovation cultures, true innovators celebrate success, console failure, and support those brave enough to try.

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