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Is failure a luxury?

3 min read


The importance of failure in innovation is all the buzz right now. Business modeling and lean startups are great ways to mitigate and manage the risk of failure. There is a great deal to be learned from failure if we choose to learn it. That’s part of the reason my mantra is Experiment-Learn-Apply-Iterate.

But, is failure — the freedom to fail — really a luxury? In the developed world, we are expect second, third, fourth chances. Stop and think about the decisions most of us have faced and will face. Seldom are they totally, completely irrevocable and permanently life altering. I’m not talking about emergency situations like SWAT teams, medical emergencies, etc.; I’m talking about choosing to try something we are passionate about, we want to create or make happen where failure is a definite possibility and going for it. We are basically free to fail, even if our culture doesn’t always accept failure. We try things, we experiment and if it doesn’t work, we try again. Few of our failures are life threatening or make us social outcasts forever.

In a different country, continent, culture or caste, choosing to take a risk as described above may not be an option. A failure may not be life-threatening but may mean being permanently disowned, cast out, shunned — for you and maybe even your parents, especially in cultures where there is a strong sense of saving face and shame. Your life is irreversibly altered. A failure may wipe out all your and your family’s meager assets without the possibility of a “regular” job or any chance of restitution as options, condemning your family to severe poverty.

It’s not clear to me that failure is as readily an option as it is for most of us. It seems that failure may actually be a luxury some in the rest of the world can’t afford.

As we toss around the word and concept of failure so nonchalantly, maybe we should understand and appreciate that perhaps it is a luxury for most people even if it’s not for us. What if the freedom to fail is a privilege and blessing not to be taken for granted? Would that increase our learning and application from failure? What if we look at our organizations, communities, countries, and cultures to see what we can do to make the freedom to fail no longer a privilege and blessing to us, but to others as well.

What do you think? What can you do?

Many thanks to Julia Thompson for prompting the discussion that resulted in this post.

Deb Mills-Scofield has her own consultancy helping organizations create and implement highly actionable, adaptable, measurable, and profitable innovation-based strategic plans. Mills-Scofield also is a partner at Glengary LLC, an early-stage venture capital firm in Cleveland. She has 20-plus years of experience in strategic planning, execution and innovation with manufacturing, service and high-technology companies from large global companies to early-stage. She has also been involved in several carve-outs and startups, including her own. Find her on Twitter or on her website.