We live in a success-obsessed business culture that glorifies winners and shudders at executives who have made mistakes. Failure and experimentation, in my career, however, have been essential building blocks to future success. I came across a quote from an unlikely source on this topic. It’s from pioneering martial artist and actor Bruce Lee: “Don’t fear failure. — Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”
I would agree with that. It’s not failure that we should fear; it’s our low expectations of our companies and ourselves. The willingness to experiment and fail has been an overlooked source of great achievement. Some thought Steve Jobs was washed up before the iPod. Twitter’s Evan Williams tried to start a podcasting platform before his big idea and it failed. Even Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell had to navigate a series of failures before they saw the flash of genius and success. Perspective changes everything. So-called “failure” can be “glorious” as Lee says, and encourage us to experiment, whether you are an entrepreneur or working at a major organization.
There’s nothing wrong with striving for “success” and, let’s face it, we all do in some form or another. That’s part of the human experience. That drive to achieve, conquer new adventures and make progress is at the very essence of humanity. Success can mean different things at different points in our lives and success can come in many forms. Our perspective on how to recognize a “success” when it comes in an unlikely form and our reaction to an obvious or perceived “failure” can change everything.
The concept of testing and experimenting has been closely associated with startups, especially in the digital age. Being a boot-strapped innovator – or even being a successful employee at a start-up – by nature requires experimentation. Entrepreneurs must naturally embrace a growth mindset and experimentation in order to evolve their business models. This also requires being comfortable with stepping into the unknown. PayPal started as a method of transferring money between PalmPilots. Then as the Internet exploded it tested online payments, and the rest is history. Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said,”You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Not taking the shot or not experimenting when the opportunity is there or when the conditions are right is the true failure.
In smaller companies, experimentation can be much easier to adopt at the executive level and encourage at a cultural level. Experimentation is more challenging in the corporate environment. The complexity of fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and the limited agility of decision-making makes it tougher, but no less attractive. That’s why innovation hubs are the center of investment at 73 big brands from Wells Fargo to Kohl’s to Neiman Marcus. And not everything works. Amazon wrote off $170 million on the Fire Phone (Remember that?). Google has spent years trying to prove itself in the social space and produced one of the more fascinating product misfits of the digital age: Google Glass. The Google X development group that produced Google Glass lost around $950 million before the product was discontinued. Yet Google’s market cap is in the $700 billions, just behind Amazon and Apple. In fact, a company called APT has built an entire business out of experimentation for the Fortune 500. Experiments at APT produced the “$5 dollar foot-long” at Subway and gained revenue for dozens of other companies through testing.
On a personal level, there’s evidence that experimentation increases learning skills. A research project at National Institute of Education in Singapore demonstrated that having someone show us the right way to do something is not a good way to learn. We may memorize the information, but it will not be understood deeply. “Nor will our knowledge be as thoroughly embedded in our minds as it would if we stumbled and stabbed in the dark a few times first,” the report says.
Is there a downside to experimentation? Of course, there can be negative consequences involved, including economic risk, stress, wasted time and social and reputational risks. Reputational risks can be one of the biggest obstacles. Today, social media seems to only amplify reputational risks associated with trying something new. These obstacles and possible negative outcomes exist, and need to be taken into consideration and prepared for, but they shouldn’t prevent us from experimentation. Social media should be an extension of facets of life, not a driver behind personal and professional decisions.
Taking risks and encountering the potential “failures” that are inevitable with any experimentation is not for the faint of heart. Whether you are an entrepreneur, employee, or a corporate executive, I believe experimentation and embracing the possibility of the unknown is a key ingredient to a truly rewarding career – and life. As Bruce Lee says, the crime is not failure, it is low aim. Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid of the naysayers. There’s failure in every success story. Whether it’s at your startup, in your corporate office, or in your personal life, I encourage you to bravely explore experimentation and discover how this approach can yield unexpected rewards.