Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Fear of Failure

We are in tough economic times and many companies will be experiencing zero or little growth, some will be experiencing some downturns. There is the ominous threat of the infamous 'Double Dip Recession' that lurks ahead although some economists think we are being too gloomy. Whichever way you cut it, most businesses need to review their plans and do some 'what ifs'. Failure is a distinct possibility.

Denial is a powerful psychological tool. In times of human bereavement it is denial that allows us to block out the negative thoughts and continue to operate. In business, it is often the ability to block out the possibility of failure that drives people to success. So let's not underestimate the strength that denial can give us.

However, some people who have experienced abject failure or the possibility of lack of success, go on to achieve the most. We have all been touched by the loss of Steve Jobs in recent days and been amazed by what achieved in his short life. Yet he was a man who was considered a failure at least twice in his life. Once, when he dropped out of college and once when he was effectively turfed out of the company he founded because his Board did not want him. In another example, if ever you want inspiration listen to JK Rowling's address of the Harvard graduates and understand that it was only when she hit rock bottom that she could galvanise her life about the one thing that would bring her success. There are many similar stories.

Some people have never experienced failure in their lives - some people just deny that they have. Personally, I am only too aware of the times I have failed and they have not been very pleasant experiences but they have shaped my life. I no longer fear failing but I now know that I have to face it to avoid it.

So when planning your business in troubled times it's sensible to avoid planning for failure. By understanding what failure would constitute and what that would mean to your company, its employees and shareholders it allows you to focus on what is needed to avoid it and to execute meticulously on the plan.

But what if you fear failure? Some people simply do not contemplate failure - they use denial to believe that it could not possibly happen to them. If that allows them to focus only on all the necessary important things that would avoid failure, then they are the unusual but extraordinary business people in life.

For the rest of us mere mortals, failure is a real possibility if we don't consider it as one - but failure is also a real possibility if we plan only because we fear it. That sounds daft but it's true. If we sit there petrified of failing, it can easily influence our decision making and actually increase the chances of failure. Why? Because in such circumstances, business people often act in a polar way.

How does that work? Well, if you fear failure too much for example, it's very likely that you might cut heads because you don't want to enter a recession struggling to contain costs - you fear the worst and so you anticipate it and plan as if it will happen.

In a subtle reworking of this, by acknowledging failure is a possibility, you do not necessarily cut heads but redeploy resources to refocus your business on the opportunities that will exist in recessionary times. If the heads aren't there then you cannot do this.

- By visualising what failure looks and feels like, you can plan to avoid it by reconfiguring your resources to put the power where its needed, when its needed so helping you to exploit any opportunities.

- By fearing failure, you are likely to be so focused on avoiding failure to see the opportunities. 

- In denying failure as a possibility you are likely to have a binary chance of success or failure. If you are the kind of business person who can be so focused on denying failure exists so as to only focus on the opportunities for success - great. But if you are not, you will likely set yourself a trap. The danger of planning only for success is that if failure strikes, you exaggerate its effects.

If you are not one of those people who constantly uses denial as a powerful factor for success, it's likely that you may actually inadvertently plan for failure. Planning for failure is the trait of fair weather business people who cannot see when markets or economies change. They are people who are unlikely to have been exposed much to failure and so they can't plan for avoiding, do not have sufficient fear of it to galvanise their actions and certainly will not have known what it feels like to make sure they plan to avoid it in the future.

It's difficult to know which business person I would want on my side in such times yet I know who I don't want there. On balance I would stick with someone who knows what it's been like to fail and so has learned how to avoid it in the future.

I would like, in that context, to always have a Steve Jobs on my team. It would always give me a greater chance of success.

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