Forget Risk. Embrace Failure instead.


At first glance Risk and Failure seem connected. Many people ask about the risks involved in my unique vocation as a professional Exploration advisor. “What do you do if something doesn’t work? What if it fails? What is your risk?” they wonder.

The reality is that Risk and Failure are simply categorical approaches or presupposed mindsets that we bring to the process of intentional change. The truth is, these two approaches actually come from opposite ends of a spectrum. They are not alike at all. Let me explain.

The idea of Risk emerges from the field of management. Managers manage risk, they attempt to minimize it. Managers think more about risk than they do failure. “Failure is not an option,” they say. Conservative, but prudent.

The idea of Failure emerges from the field of Exploration. Explorers consciously look failure in the eye and accept it as a possible outcome. As such, Explorers think more about failure than they do risk. “Failure is a definite possibility,” they say. Crazy, but admirable.

Here’s how this plays out. When it comes to risk, executives often consider how to manage it. They ask, how is it mitigated? How do I make sure the risk is not too great? Can we manage our upside and contain our downsides? Failure? That’s not even a consideration. Thinking about risk allows managers to be careful and controlled. When a leader is thinking about control, that’s management. My belief is that when managers seek to manage risk they can inadvertently leave good, viable options on the table unexplored. From a management perspective that’s a wise choice, to be sure. It contains costs, and from a timing standpoint, it leads to quicker solutions. Not every possible option needs to be considered for the situation at hand. Businesses seek to maximize profit, leverage time and minimize problems. By managing risk it puts a prudent governor on option-creep so that every possibility is not necessarily considered. More than likely this approach will reveal the best option, especially when the organization places a high value on risk mitigation and maintaining status quo. Don’t misunderstand me. Management and risk aversion aren’t bad. But they are different from Exploration and the dangerous art of failure-embracing.

So who would embrace failure? And why?

Explorers do. These executives and leaders often recognize that when there is an opportunity or problem that is beyond the known solutions or routine of current operations, they need to innovate. It is the pursuit of that disruptive innovation or new discovery that takes an organization beyond where it is today and launches an entirely new industry, mindset or understanding. In order to get to that kind of breakthrough however, insight only occurs by learning both from success and failure. In fact, I submit that success is more closely linked to failure than is risk linked to failure. Success is easy to embrace. Failure must also be embraced with equal vigor for breakthroughs to occur. For a baseball analogy, a check-swing will never put it over the green monster at Fenway. You gotta embrace the possibility of a big strike-out with a big swing these details.

My hero in exploration has always been Thomas Edison. He tried over a thousand different materials for his first lightbulb filament. Some would say he had 999 failures. He was good at failing. You might say he embraced it. He wasn’t good at managing risk. Risk and Failure, you see, are two very different things.

Explorers like Edison, Lewis and Clark, and even the folks at the early Bell Labs understood the difference between failure and risk.

For instance I’ve been reading through the story of Bell Labs, as told by John Gertner in the Idea Factory. In the early days Bell Labs’ research was wide open and explorative. But as time went on it became more managed with more constraints. Consequently as it became more controlled, it took on the characteristics of management, losing its characteristics of Exploration. I would make the case that ultimately this was one of the factors leading to the demise of Bell Labs. They thought they could manage their way to discovery. But it was Exploration thinking that got them there in the first place.

There’s another benefit to this idea of embracing failure. I see it most evident in my work with faith-based organizations. Embracing failure consistently fosters the character qualities of tenacity, perseverance and focus (recall Thomas Edison).

Faith-based and cause-related organizations often recognize their goals as bigger than any failure that may hinder them. When the objective is bigger than the perceived risk, people are more willing to accept, even embrace failure. They’ll accept otherwise unacceptable risks because the reward potential is great. They’ll get up and try again believing there is a bright horizon if they can keep at it. The writer of the New Testament book Hebrews said it this way, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

So what does this mean for your business today? It means that if you really want to discover, if you really want to explore, don’t think about risk, think about failure instead. Embrace it. Failure is closer to success than you thought.


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