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Accepting Failure

Failures that used to be swept under the carpet by job applicants are now being spotlighted as a positive experience. Find out why business leaders are embracing the previously scorned F word.

“Viewing Failure as a Gift”. “Turning Setbacks into Successes”. “The Fringe Benefits of Failure”. “Smart Failure for a Fast Changing World”. Browse through just about any American business publication or website – from Forbes and Fortune to Fast Company and Inc – and you will find a multitude of headlines screaming the virtues of mistakes.

It can be said that the acceptance of failure is inherent in the American culture, which celebrates the individual and each person’s right to “believe in yourself”. And, while defeats are made almost glamorous by a generation of young people brought up in a feel-good culture (think schools that commend students just for showing up), and who are not afraid to talk about their misadventures – with pride, too – the value of failure goes way beyond a good story to tell.

Failure Stories
In her commencement address at the Annual Meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association in 2008, J.K. Rowling said that “failure meant a stripping away of the inessential”.

She added: “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me… And, so, rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Indeed, the darkest hour is just before dawn, and Rowling is not unique in fuelling success through failure. Inventor Sir James Dyson went through 15 years and 5,127 failed prototypes before presenting the world with the iconic Dyson DCO1 bagless vacuum cleaner that operates on breakthrough technology. Earlier in history, Henry Ford bungled two automobile-production ventures, before incorporating Ford Motor Company and revolutionising industrial production in the US and Europe. From Ford also comes the oft-quoted line: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

There are valuable lessons to be learnt from every setback – so much so that there is even a conference dedicated to sharing failure stories. Started in San Francisco in 2009, Fail Con is a one-day business conference for entrepreneurs to “study their own and others’ failures and prepare for success”. What sounded almost like a prank has since become global, with Fail Con events in South America, Europe and Asia, in countries such as India, Japan and Singapore.

A Necessary Stage
Fail Con is just one sign of a business world that is becoming increasingly accepting of screw-ups. Companies around the world are also beginning to seek candidates who have experienced failed ventures. Perhaps, in the light of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008, the bankruptcy of Chrysler and General Motors in 2009, and a slew of meltdowns globally, corporations and individuals alike are reminded that nothing is too big to fail. Rather than trying to ignore the elephant in the room, it is time to address and perhaps put a harness on it.

Speaking at the Google Big Tent Event in November last year, the CEO of Deal Market, Urs Haeusler, observed that investors in Asia and Europe tend to shun those who have failed, whereas in America, “failing is part of learning, and you stand up and do better the next time”. He said: “The venture capitalists and the people who finance the business also think the same way.” For corporations, moving away from zero tolerance for mistakes is not just about discovering talent through giving second chances – it is also a necessary mindset shift, with innovation becoming key to growth in the business world today.

For individuals, failure is a necessary stage for almost every entrepreneur, and only when one is able to “fail forward” can he walk the road to success. In the words of Winston Churchill: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Conquering The Fear Of Failure
Yet, many companies and individuals are still struggling to get out of the anti-failure mentality. Even if they welcome young executives with past failures, large corporations still prefer those with a spotless track record when it comes to engaging C-suite personnel. As for individuals, the allure of almost-guaranteed financial success via taking tried-and-tested career paths poses as disincentives to striking out on their own.

For Singaporeans, the need to succeed is ingrained from young – from the day children are streamed according to academic results in primary school. Thankfully, tertiary institutions are designing ways to foster entrepreneurial spirit.

NUS Enterprise was established in 2001 by National University of Singapore to provide an enterprise dimension – through industry partnership, entrepreneurship support, mentorship and other initiatives – that complements the university’s traditional function of education and research. It has helped over 350 start-ups get going and some of the entrepreneurs have returned to give back via mentorship and investment. They show students that it’s possible to follow the non-traditional path of entrepreneurship in Singapore.  

“Innovation and entrepreneurship have become key elements of growth for many countries,” says Dr Lily Chan, CEO of NUS Enterprise. “There is increasing need for our graduates to have entrepreneurial mindsets and we create the opportunities for them to develop these in the course of their study so they can better contribute to organisations they start up or join.” 

At Nanyang Technological University, NTUitive – the university’s five-year-old innovation and enterprise company – helps aspiring graduates transform technological innovations into actual businesses. The start-up incubator assists entrepreneurial students create and run their own start-up enterprises by giving them access to early-stage funding and mentoring support. According to Dr Lim Jui, CEO of NTUitive, the organisation sees an average of three start-ups funded per month, and many older start-ups getting follow-up funding and becoming sustainable businesses – a marked increase compared to 2009 when NTUitive started. “The innovation and enterprise ecosystem was relatively new, and relatively fewer students were interested in starting up as a career option.”

Dr Lim says: “Innovation and entrepreneurship are in the spotlight, so the future is bright. Over these years, we have seen students interested in creating start-ups as a career option. This initiative will contribute directly to fostering an alternative career path for students, increasing the number of new start-ups, and enhancing the diversity of the future Singaporean workforce.”

However, it is one thing to nurture a generation of eager, bright-eyed entrepreneurs, and perhaps another to groom future business leaders with true mettle to weather and learn from failures. Even these incubator programmes face the challenge of justifying the value of failure. “It is easy to focus on the financial measures of success but there is an intrinsic value in entrepreneurship that is more important,” says Dr Chan, when asked about the challenges faced by the organisation. “Even if a start-up fails, which most do, there is so much our students can gain from the exposure and experience.”   

 Yet, for those outside of the nurturing ecosystem of varsities, finding support is not as easy. The Government, through Spring Singapore and the multi-agency initiative Enterprise One that it manages, offers funding and other resources – such as a variety of productivity and business- management guides – for start-ups. However, several SME owners we spoke to feel that the support is relatively conservative – especially for young companies with little track record wishing to gather funding for business expansion. Chang Siew Khang, CEO of Talent Catalyst Holdings – a company offering business-innovation and talent-selection services for corporations, and which runs leadership-development programmes – feels that the Government can play a bigger part in fostering an ecosystem that is less afraid of failure.

“The Government needs policies and practices that display its risk appetite, so that it’s more encouraging than stifling,” says Chang, who was the former managing director and human-resource director of a Government Investment Corporation.

“Indeed, taxpayers’ money is at stake but they will need to be ready to pay a certain political price – but it’s a matter of conviction.”

The challenge of moving away from perfectionism – not just for the Government but also for companies – is to not cross the fine line between celebrating smart failures and incentivising poor performance. Organisations need to find the middle ground between a performance culture and learning culture to empower workers who aren’t afraid to make mistakes, yet keep them accountable for their actions.

IBM Research, for one, measures staff performance through one- and three-year time frames. By doing so, staff are incentivised to aim for long-term triumphs by investing in short-term setbacks. The bonus payouts for the three-year assessment can neutralise the costs of necessary mistakes made in the early stages of innovation. An idea, perhaps, for corporate heads to keep in mind.