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“Epic Fail”

As I was writing my last blog post about failing development aid and creativity in the socially responsible business world I came across an interesting video of a TEDx talk. In one part of this video David Damberger, the man giving this speech mentions his recently created website “Admitting Failure”. This site can be used by development agencies to publish their project plans, tell how certain results have been achieved or have differed from the expected, and get feedback.

The Idea
Damberger states that instead of recognizing these experiences as learning opportunities, we hide them away of fear and embarrassment.

This site is an open space for development professionals who recognize that the only “bad” failure is one that’s repeated

Users of this site learn from their mistakes and know how to do better next time.
This got me thinking. How is failure treated in the corporate world? I did some research investigating this topic and found out that even the Harvard Business Review magazine devoted the entire issue of April, 2011 to this topic.
So, there might be a whole lot to learn.

Failure= Bad
Everyone of us has failed. Don’t tell me you haven’t. How did it feel? Not very nice, probably. It hurts to have others tell you what you might have done wrong and point out your weaknesses. We prefer acknowledgement.
When companies fail the outcome may be even worse. Not only personal egos are hurt but lots of people suffer due to wrong decisions. They might even lose their jobs.
But, failure happens. As much as we want to live in a perfect world, the outcomes of our behavior and decisions are not always the best.
To prevent this just mentioned feeling of shame and guilt we walk paved roads. This means that we use previously used methods and make decisions that have led to an expected, positive outcome before. As the psychologist Alison Gopnik states, this is the way we protect ourselves from feeling shame. A completely normal behavior. Not rational, though. We often find failure so upsetting that we miss out in the primary benefit of failing.

As we get older, our ways of thinking harden, and we start making decisions based on what we know works.

Benefits of Failure
What benefit of failing you might ask. The chance to get over our egos and come back with a stronger, smarter approach. We learn from our mistakes. That’s what teachers always told us at school, right?
As managers we want to be successful. We want our company to grow. We want to be innovative, create new needs, serve the customer in a whole different way. We want to be better, smarter than others. We want to be the one with the smartest approach.

Leaving Your Ego Behind
What does a company prevent from being successful? Wrong decisions. But as I have stated before if  we just walk paved roads we might prevent failure in the short run, but we don’t try new out new approaches. We are not creative, we do not come up with innovative solutions nobody has thought of yet.
So, the biggest problem is our egos. On the web I found a book written by Financial Times columnist Tim Hartford that outlines this problem. His book “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure” suggests that denial is the worst reaction you can show.

It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit we’ve made a mistake and try to put it right. It requires you to challenge a status quo of your own making.

Look at what you have caused and act accordingly.

Start Achieving the Impossible
But, how do we learn to do better than usual? Be creative and fail but don’t fail completely? To achieve this we need to experiment. Tim Harford proposes to try out new things in an environment where failure is survivable. That is not always possible but every company should give their employees some time to develop ideas that might seem a bit far- fetched but could potentially lead to innovative solutions and success.

Please, Fail!
The solution is to implement a plan of how to fail and not cause too much damage within the company. Harford explains how important a safe environment to fail is. The second main step is to gather feedback. It is essential for realizing which projects have succeeded and which haven’t. The third aspect is to overcome shame. Everyone fails. Emotions can block the road that is our way to success. Accept that if an approach has turned out to not work, do not stick to it but develop new ideas.
In short, an epic fail is not to fail at all.

A Look at Success
Are companies already using these methods to improve their business? Google! Just to name one example.

As a motivation technique, Google uses a policy often called Innovation Time Off, where Google engineers are encouraged to spend 20% of their work time on projects that interest them. Some of Google’s newer services, such as Gmail, Google News, Orkut, and AdSense originated from these independent endeavors.

What I also found on the web was a huge discussion about that success does not only rely on implementing the three strategies Tim Harford proposes but has a lot to do with psychology. The so- called psychology of success is a very important aspect.
Ultimately, it all comes down to you. If you do not have the right attitude towards your business none of the excellent plans that might work for others work for you. Be the achiever!

In this spirit:
“Stay hungry, stay foolish”

Leave a comment


  1. Hi martin! I really enjoyed reading along your posts. Your storytelling is very appealing and in addition, your structure supports the reading a lot. I like how you chose certain quotes to underline your message and the way you implemented headers. The personal approach you used in this text and also the way you involve the reader (imperatives, rhetorical questions etc) got me thinking a lot about what you wrote about and I’m secretly hoping for an employer for myself that will offer me 20% of my time to develop my personality 🙂

  2. Lilian

     /  February 6, 2012

    Wow – great work Martin! I really enjoy reading your posts as you write them in a very smooth style and perfectly use quotations and links to support your argument along the way and provide a red thread for the reader.
    It’s very interesting that you chose failure as a topic for your post, as most of the business-related discussions are about success and how it can be optimized and it is good to see that subject from a different view: that success can actually be achieved through failure. All of the great inventions we use today have once been developed by some kick-ass creative people that had to courage to try something new and with this revolutionized old standards.
    It makes me think of the Corporate Finance exam today: the higher the risk, the greater the return 😉 Probably this is not only true for investment decisions but for many areas in life and of course also for firms!

    PS: Google is a good example that trying something new can work out. They have some uncommon strategies in their corporate culture and they even have a fun manager whose only task it is to keep everyone in the company happy. Might sound crazy, but if you look at the success of Google, it can’t be the worst thing to do…

  3. Hey Martin,
    as many other times before you write on a very interesting issue! The way you introduce your topics, through relating them to previous posts and your personal life makes your writing strong.

    You’re touching several important spots here, and I enjoyed reading you.
    To overcome fear of failing has to be learnt over and over again. The hardest part with failing is the uncertain result, which is hard to estimate before it actually happens.

    I read somewhere that the established players in the national teams in football mostly were people who had been born during the latest 6 months of the year. During their youth careers, the have always been playing against players which were slightly older, slightly stronger and slightly bigger. (6 months is a big difference between children in physical development). At the age of 17 or 18 the players which always had a disadvantage in being younger and weaker were now fully developed. They had also learnt that not being good enough on the pitch meant they had to train harder as where the older ones realized they were no longer could rely on talent anymore… Now the ones who learnt how to cope with failures play in the national team..

  4. Larissa

     /  February 10, 2012

    Hi Martin,

    super-post! I like how you approached the topic by using the TED video and the reference to your prior post. Very nice and vivid writing style and your clear structure and great choice of titles help to follow your train of thoughts.
    By including personal impressions, I totally get the impression that the topic actually moved you further!

    Do you think “failure” commited by employees is punished too hard in today’s business world?

  5. Marius

     /  February 11, 2012

    Hi Martin,
    after having heard from so many of our colleagues that you are such a good writer I figured it was time to check out on of your posts.
    And I have to say, I am impressed.
    It is very thoughtful for you to take an issue from one field and translate it to two totally different ones. In this case, you go from development aid to corporations not ever forgetting to advice how to use that information for our own personal life. This way, the reader learns a whole lot by reading your post!!!! Great!
    In the beginning, you also created a certain expectation but you turned your post around in a totally different direction. Not many people can do that especially when the new direction is even more interesting.
    Of corse, this approach results in a rather long post but it is worth reading, that’s for sure.
    I am afraid I cannot give you any advice on how to do better…
    Only that this might interest you as well. It is an example of business failure due to misleading accounting:http://www.ecommercetimes.com/story/45542.html


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