This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker’s piece for Forbes
My four year old son really wants to ride a two-wheeler bike, and he thinks it should be easy. After all, he read a Curious George book in which the Man with the Yellow Hat (George’s human caretaker) pushes George, and off he goes. Simple! Alas, George is a monkey, and balance comes naturally to monkeys.
When we tried his first ride without training wheels the other day, expectations were dashed. My boy expected no failure, and so the first wobble produced startled alarm. When he realized he could fall, he had no idea what that would feel like. My reassurances to the contrary, he feared the unknown and could barely stomach the thought. And so, just like that, he insisted that I put the training wheels back on. No learning resulted, except that failure was possible and that it was frightening.
While my son will eventually come around to trying again, many organizations go through this identical process without making any progress. Think of it as a sort of “iron triangle” of failure-risk-learning that freezes companies in place. When they think about doing something innovative, they apply the same expectations of consistent success that pertain in the core business. Failure is hard to contemplate, both for the people ultimately responsible and for the champions of the new idea who often have developed an emotional attachment to it.
In the next corner of the triangle we have risk. Even if you accept that failure is possible – let alone likely for the first iteration of something truly unique – the unknown consequences of that failure make the possibility hard to tolerate. Entrepreneurs and enterprises need to think through what kinds of risks they’re taking and what the consequences of each would be, although usually they don’t. It’s unpleasant and scary. Yet the lack of knowledge about risk makes the imminent threat of failure even more frightening. Really, falling off a bike isn’t so bad, especially if your Dad is there to catch you. But if you haven’t fallen, you don’t know what it feels like.
The last corner of the triangle is about learning. For my son, it was really lack of learning. No tolerance of failure, no understanding of risk, and therefore no learning. Once he gets the gumption to re-try his bike, he’ll fall eventually. Learning will result, and he’ll get better.
While this iron triangle became obvious to me in a negative light, it can also be a virtuous cycle. Think of venture capitalists. They know that most of their investments will fail, and they understand exactly what the consequences of those failures will be. But still they place their bets, and they learn from them.
As my son discovered, breaking the iron triangle isn’t easy. But by accepting failure, knowing what risks are entailed, and learning from his first forays, success will happen. Organizations need to set forth on a similar path ahead.
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