Failing. And dealing with it.

A few of my Principles for Innovating are more popular than others.

When I give a talk on those principles, the first six are received with a lot of enthusiasm, which is to be expected, because they’re all about design thinking, always an empowering subject. People who get excited about principles seven through twelve tend to be in management positions, because that collection deals with innovating from a manager’s point of view. Principles fifteen through eighteen make organizational design aficionados salivate, and nineteen and twenty always make me want to cheer when I talk through them. I love nineteen and twenty.

Principles thirteen and fourteen are really bummers. I hate talking about them. They suck the energy out of the room. In fact, when it comes to that contagious buzz and energy you get when things are going well in a talk (for both presenter and audience), Principle 13 is nothing if not a black hole. “You will fail,” it says.

There’s a reason it’s sitting at that number.

You will fail. That’s the reality of trying to bring new things to life. You will fail, and may fail over and over and over. You may never suceed, actually. But, some folks are able to take that failure and get to the mantra of Principle 14, which is Failure Sucks, But Instructs. Today’s New York Times has a wonderful article titled “Following Your Bliss, Right Off the Cliff“, which examines the failures and recoveries of several entrepreneurs, including my friend and colleague Michael Dearing.

Here’s an excerpt from the article. It talks about Michael’s experience with a shoe retailing startup which ended up going out of business:

He struggled to keep the business afloat because, he said, it felt dishonorable to let it go. “I personalized the outcome to a degree that it was unhealthy,” he said. “I thought failure was total and permanent — and success stamped me as a worthwhile business person.”

…Mr. Dearing liquidated his business in what he called an “excruciating” time. He turned to eBay to sell shoes, cash registers, delivery trucks and warehouse equipment to repay creditors and pay his employees’ severance. “I was dead broke,” he said. “This was probably one of the hardest times, deciding whether I was going to buy food for my animals or dinner for me.”

…“I thought I had one shot to be successful,” he said. “I had no idea that my career — or anybody’s career — is actually a multiround process and that you had many, many at-bats.”

…Mr. Dearing would approve. He tells his students that the “suffering comes from being attached to the outcomes.”

As paradoxical as it sounds, he said, “If you stop worrying about the outcomes, you will achieve a better outcome.”

Let’s read that last one again: “If you stop worrying about the outcomes, you will achieve a better outcome.”

What a profound statement from Michael, and it works on so many levels. When you stop worrying about the outcome, you let go of the fear of ultimate, soul-crushing failure, which in turn allows you to focus on the here and now. Being in the moment is what allows you to see and hear clearly to what life is telling you. That feedback helps you understand the true nature of what is going on with your new venture, and leads to better decision making. Being freed from fear not only adds a few points of IQ to your total, but it gives you the courage to run that test, to build that prototype — today. Taking action now and failing on a smaller level each day, while listening to the resulting feedback coming your way, ends up giving you a much better chance of succeeding in the end than if you ignore those small doses of daily feeback.

Michael’s advice is a very Obi-Wan Kenobi feel-the-force-flow-through-you-Luke kind of thing, but it really does work. It’s also the hardest thing for would-be innovators to do. In my experience, you learn how to stop worrying about the outcomes by building up the mileage that only comes by shipping stuff. The more you ship, the better you get, and the better the odds become of the outcome being great.