So you say that you are an innovator? Where is your failure resume?

We have all seen the endless number of quotes on how we should fail more, fail quickly, and fail often but what do we actually do with all of these failures?  If we are lucky we might actually take the time to learn from them but usually we quickly take stock in what happened and make a few mental notes to ensure that we don’t do it again.  Rarely do we share the details of your our failures even with friends or family and we certainly would never think of revealing our failures with colleagues or perspective employers.  Why do we have this inconsistency?  We know that failure is a necessary part of learning and growing for both the organization and the individual but we never want to admit to our failures?  If our resume is a collection of our successes… where is our failure resume?

As I have been conducting research for a book on failure and the important role role of failure in innovation I came across a great story from Tina Seelig.  Seelig was the Executive Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program when she had written a blog post back in 2009 about how she had required students in her class to create a failure resume.  This resume wouldn’t highlight their accomplishments or successes but would list their personal, professional, and academic failures.  With each failure they would explain what they had learned through the failure.  Brilliant!

These students were attending one of the most prestigious universities in the United States and had only been admitted based on their incredible hard work and preparation.  That hard work had paid off in academic and personal success not failures.  They were used to trumpeting these successes and glossing over any minor setbacks that they had received.  Here they were forced to acknowledge their failures and change their perspective to draw out what had they really learned.  Seelig noted that beyond her class some students had kept their failure resumes updated even years later.  One interesting twist on societal acceptance of failure failure is what country you are from.  Based on much of the feedback from Quora responses to the question “Is it okay to mention my failed startup on my resume?” it depends on your culture.  America… ok.  Parts of Europe and Asia… not so much.

Woody Allen was quoted as saying that “If you are not failing every now and again, it’s a sign that you’re not doing anything very innovative.”  So if we are supposed to fail every now and again, why is it that we never want to admit to these failures?  Why do we not take pride in our failures as part of the learning process?  As a risk taker?  As an innovator?  Silicon Valley recognizes the role of failure and the reality that failures are significantly more likely than success in the process of innovation.  Seelig included in her blog post a video interview with Randy Komisar a former entrepreneur and now partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.  Komisar starts the interview by recognizing, “What distinguishes Silicon Valley is not it’s successes but the way in which it deals with failure.”  He further notes that “Innovation is about taking risks to do things that haven’t been done before” and that “big businesses don’t usually venture into this space because their models don’t tolerate this rate of failure.”  His interview is spot on and well worth the 8.5 minutes to watch it!

Food for thought:

  • How does your organization address failure?  Does it get discussed or swept under the rug?
  • What is holding your organization back from recognizing the role of failure?
  • Have you done your own failure resume?  Have you thought through what you have learned?

4 replies to “So you say that you are an innovator? Where is your failure resume?”

  1. Sarah | Jan 14, 2013, 10:00 am

    I’d add Latin America to the list of continents in which business failures seem to be a permanent stain on one’s reputation, and certainly make the person’s ability to raise funds more difficult. I’ve heard this from a couple of entrepreneur friends here in Colombia for whom failure simply cannot be an option. One friend who runs a video gaming company talked of the need to have a fail-free story to present to LATAM investors and a different, failure-INCLUDING story for his U.S. investors, who wanted proof that he had a few gray hairs and key lessons from the world of business.

    The conventional wisdom in Colombia seems to be that if you’ve studied hard, done your due diligence and are connected to an influential group of people, there is simply no reason you should fail. However, the number of vacant storefronts and office spaces that suddenly popped up on Jan. 1, 2013 are clear proof that this isn’t the case – a great education and influential friends can’t teach you everything, and they certainly don’t insulate anybody from the ups and downs of a free market.

    I’d venture that this fear of failure being severely career-limiting also hampers creativity, as people look to the tried and true success models they see around them rather than filling societal and market needs that require fresh, outside-the-box, paradigm-free ingenuity.

    Keep up the great food for thought, Matt.

  2. Matt Hunt | Jan 14, 2013, 3:05 pm

    Thanks Sarah! Think of how much more potential there is in these societies for entrepreneurship if the risk taking didn’t include a permanent stain on one’s reputation? Keep me in mind for your next TEDxColumbia!

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