October 6, 2005
Counter Cliche: Failure Is Not an Orphan
I haven’t written one of these for a while, but this week, Fred’s VC Cliche of the Week, Success Has a Thousand Fathers, definitely merits an entrepreneurial point of view. Fred’s main point is right — it’s very easy when something goes right, whether a company/venture deal or even something inside the company like a good quarter or a big new client win, for lots of people to take credit, many of whom don’t deserve it.
But what separates A companies from B and C companies is the ability to recognize and process failures as well as successes. Failure is not orphan. It usually has as many real fathers as success. Although it’s true that Sometimes, There is No Lesson to Be Learned, failure rarely emerges spontaneously.
Companies that have a culture of blame and denial eventually go down in flames. They are scary places to work. They foster in-fighting between departments and back-stabbing among friends. Most important, companies like that are never able to learn from their mistakes and failures to make sure those things don’t happen again.
Finger-pointing and looking the other way as things go south have no place in a well-run organization. While companies don’t necessarily need to celebrate failures, they can create a culture where failures are treated as learning experiences and where claiming responsibility for a mistake is a sign of maturity and leadership. And all of this starts at the top. If the boss (CEO, department head, line manager) is willing to step up and acknowledge a mistake, do a real post-mortem, and process the learnings with his or her team without fear of retribution, it sets an example that everyone in the organization can follow.