How fear of failure inhibits innovation

By Ezri Carlebach

“There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes”. Fear of failure inhibits change, yet understanding what produces it can lead to innovation. We look at the work of creators such as Buckminster Fuller, and how they experienced fear and uncertainty, but persist to innovate.

The Dymaxion map — by R. Buckminster Fuller. Animated projection by Chris Rywatt.

Going to zero

When someone asks, “what could possibly go wrong?” you know that something horrible is about to happen. It could be anything from mild embarrassment to a complete meltdown. Author and entrepreneur Jonathan Fields identifies the latter kind of experience as “going to zero”, and the fear of ‘zero’, or fear of failure, as one of the greatest that we experience today — particularly in our working lives. Fields says fear of failure is an unholy trinity, made up of a fear of being judged by others, low tolerance for uncertainty, and anxiety about material losses. “Many of the world’s greatest creators, from traditional artists to entrepreneurs and global business builders, have gone to zero,” says Fields, but the experience “releases within them the freedom to rebuild.” Citing Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s resilience when she was penniless and without a publisher, Fields stresses that once you’ve experienced total ‘zero’ and realised that — to coin a phrase — it’s not the end of the world, the triple fear can melt away.

Inspiring as these, and similar examples, can be, it turns out that there is a solid basis for our antipathy towards zero point. Simply put, it represents a major threat, and our brains have evolved over millions of years to keep us out of harm’s way by avoiding threat. Change management expert Hilary Scarlett has spent the past few years working with leading neuroscientists at University College London to understand the impact of the brain’s structure and processes on modern organisational life.

“Simply put, it represents a major threat, and our brains have evolved over millions of years to keep us out of harm’s way by avoiding threat.”

While the brain is set up to both get us away from danger and seek pleasure, says Scarlett, “the threat response in our brains is far stronger than the reward response.” So, it’s not surprising that fear of failure remains such a common inhibitor of innovation, given the risks that go with it. The thing is, we’re not roaming the savannah any more, dodging snakes and tigers (well, not usually…). There are ways we can acknowledge and overcome the elements in going to zero’s three-way threat of judgment, uncertainty, and loss.

Read the full article and learn about Buckminster Fuller and ways to overcome fear of failure.

& discover other interesting blogs on design thinking, innovation and facilitation over on our website blog section.