"There is much to be said for failure. It is much more interesting than success," said the twentieth-century writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm. If the current vogue for confessional-style business events where failures are shared and applauded is anything to go by, he was ahead of his time...
But why is failure so interesting? Certainly not because it’s rare. Perhaps because, like politics and religion, it has long been considered taboo. Some entrepreneurs would rather disclose the most personal details of their private lives than tell you about their business failures.
It takes a brave entrepreneur to admit to a $10,000 typo, let alone do so in public. But when ONEHOPE Wine co-founder Brandon Hall told 150 eager listeners that his first batch of labels read 'chardannay', he was rewarded with laughter and applause.
Hall's supporters were the audience of the first New York City version of Fuckup Nights, an event that celebrates start-up screw-ups. Established in Mexico in 2012, Fuckup Nights is now a global movement for sharing business failure stories.
Speakers at a recent Fuckup Nights event in London included successful entrepreneur Steve Woody, who explained how he'd left the Army and become homeless. After living in a car for six months, going bankrupt and having his family disown him, he became an international bestselling author and business owner.
It’s a great anecdote. But does it make Woody a more worthy success story than someone who had a less sensational path to achievement? And is there a risk that we’re so used to hearing the stories of failure behind every great success that we’re becoming suspicious of those who haven’t failed (or don’t admit to it)?
What are we celebrating?
The answer lies in defining what exactly we are celebrating. Are we really applauding the failures that preceded Woody’s success, or the success he achieved in spite of them? Would we celebrate Woody’s story if it ended with his family disowning him?
Best-selling author, thought-leader and change-maker Jonathan Blain believes there is potential learning value in outright failure: "Knowing what doesn’t work is valuable in itself," he says. "Of course, it’s always nicer if failure can be quickly transformed into success, but that’s not always possible."
Embracing failure is one thing, but celebrating failure takes this one step further. Some might say it’s a step too far, but the appetite for it is surprising. Several failure events have enjoyed popularity in recent years, including FailCon, another global venture, which began with a conference celebrating business failure in California in 2009.
These events have become so mainstream that their impact looks to be lessening. In fact, last year’s FailCon event in San Francisco was cancelled, with the founder admitting it was partly because ‘failure chatter’ is now so pervasive that a conference about it seems unnecessary.
A rising trend
But it doesn’t look like the moment for celebrating failure has passed. It has become a huge trend – part of the bigger 'fail fast' mantra, which encourages start-ups to get their failures out of the way as quickly as possible.
Jonathan Blain believes the concept of failing fast is helpful. "Theory, research and analysis, and belief is nothing compared to reality, and what works in practice," he says. "Energy to do things, time and resources are always in short supply, and as an entrepreneur, you never want to waste them. Failing fast means protecting your limited resources and making the most of what you have."
What is less clear is how helpful these failure-celebrating events really are. Do they pave the way for success, or simply reassure us that there are failures out there? And who really wins – the speaker or the audience?
In an article in Harvard Business Review, 'When Not to Celebrate Failure', business consultant, coach and author Ron Ashkenas says that failure itself is not always a good thing – there are times, for example, when you need to meet a deadline or ensure quality.
"Unfortunately, many managers don’t distinguish between when failure can be a valuable catalyst for learning and when it can be truly harmful," he says.
The key, he believes, lies in "understanding whether the organisation is in execution mode or innovation mode".
According to Ashkenas, execution mode kicks in when standard operating practices have been developed. These practices should not be meddled with unnecessarily, and failure should be minimised. Innovation mode exists before standards have been defined. In this situation, new ideas, formats, and processes still need to be tested, and there should be room for failure.
Ashkenas concludes: "Failure is a key to learning, growing and figuring out what works. But before you either celebrate or punish failure, make sure you know what you are trying to achieve". It seems that the dos and don’ts of celebrating failure are anything but straightforward.