Are you truly accepting failure?

How ‘failure’ has gone from being accepted to a buzzword.

In startups, failure is OK. But like a lot of startup terminology, this idea has become a target of criticism and therefore compromise. The rise in popularity of starting a startup and its subsequent glorification has meant that real lessons have very quickly become buzzwords. Lean, Agile, MVP; these terms have become shallow and their genuine lessons have been lost. To some, failure is no longer OK.

I’ve made a huge mistake. — G.O.B Bluth, circa 2003

The problem is that the definition of failure has been compromised and butchered to suit people’s needs. Its glorification has led to a point where everyone says they accept it without practicing it. When did failure only become allowed if the task starts or ends with the word ‘test’? This breeds a culture that is negative to the growth of the startup. Failing fast, failing cheap, moving fast and breaking things - these should not only apply to A/B tests. They apply to every single team member and every single task or project they are tackling.

All too often I see people who work at startups reprimanded for mistakes despite the founders having set the expectation that ‘failure is OK’. This hypocrisy undermines the entire culture and vision of the company, and is detrimental to everyone’s success. Goals missed, meetings forgotten, illness; these are all things that should be accepted not judged. I’m not saying these things are good. But by taking a stance that is judgemental and unconstructive, you risk long term damage with little short term benefit. It only takes one moment in a company to ruin a culture for months. Why are these failures treated any differently? What would happen if you really accepted failure? By encouraging and accepting individual mistakes you can create an atmosphere where people learn faster, move quicker and earn more trust.

It is OK to take a breather.

Startups are high pressure, high output and low praise. People who work in them, and certainly people who found them, tend to like and thrive in this environment. This does not mean they are not human. It seriously disturbs and disappoints me that within this environment, one of the biggest taboos is falling ill. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that people get ill more often in this highly strung atmosphere! Yet illness isn’t something that is widely accepted. Breaks are not things that are encouraged. It is a regular topic that startup culture is unhealthy. But why is the general attitude to deal with it or move on?

I’m also not just talking about physical illness. Mental illness is often even more common. The level of depression amongst founders is well known. These people place internal pressures on themselves where illness equates to failure. Maybe it does. But maybe if failure was truly accepted this wouldn’t matter. Having such a negative view of illness and breaks will kill a company over time. It does nothing for the awareness of the issue and it is an entirely insensitive and apathetic response.

That’s not me. — Skepta, 2014

Are you guilty of this? I sometimes am. Maybe you think you’re not. But over 90% of what you say is in your tone or body language. Humans are highly perceptive (and sometimes paranoid), so often it is not what you say but how you say it. A team’s culture has to be carefully nurtured and, unless you are genuinely empathetic and respectful, it is obvious you are transparent. Oh and by the way, silence is also judgement. Positive reinforcement is the only way to support failure.

It is understandable that rules get morphed over time. The UK startup scene is a particular offender in this regard. It has a completely different ecosystem to that of Silicon Valley. Yes, it is younger. But more importantly, the breadth of industry within London has led to founders from corporate backgrounds rather than just a Stanford dorm room. This is perfectly fine. But we need to be honest about the fact this can (and has) caused latent bad habits that have evolved from being part of a ruthless career ladder. These founders often find it hard to adapt to a different work environment. Tushar (my co-founder, an ex-banker) will testify to this. I can’t imagine how hard it is for them to create a contrarian workplace that removes the ingrained shackles of their previous employment.

Too many startups do not practice what they preach. ‘Failure is OK’ has been lost. Whether you are a founder or a team member, you have a responsibility to others to create a great place to work. Culture is not something set from the top, it is disseminated by everyone. By not truly accepting failure you’re not just losing friends, you’re decreasing everyones chance of success.