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What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Air Crash Investigations

When a plane goes down, we make it a priority to find out why. When a business fails, we're nowhere near as meticulous.

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A quick search on the word “failure” in Inc’s archive returns close to 3,000 results, most offering advice on how to celebrate failure, cope with it, or most bafflingly, aspire to it. The reasoning here is that most successful people claim they simply could not have achieved their greatness without having survived at least one solid beat-down; by that logic, the sooner you fail, the better.

Silicon Valley in particular has adopted a celebratory aspect to failure amongst its youthful innovators. Perhaps this greater acceptance of failure is the natural consequence of the "everybody-gets-a-trophy” mindset that is de rigueur in today's schools. It may be cute at middle-school track meets, but it’s not how the real world works. Failure sucks and should be loathed. It certainly is not a cause to celebrate.

If at first you don’t

Conventional wisdom says if you are afraid to fail you will never attempt anything that may make a difference. True enough. But do we have to fail so much? Is it an inevitable outcome of entrepreneurship? The numbers imply that yes, it is. Three of four new businesses fail. Oddly, that number has remained constant, certainly throughout my lifetime. This suggests that either of two things is true: Either we are not learning from our failures, or success has a random aspect that requires lobbing a fair amount of fecal matter against the wall.

Failure unpacked

The fundamental unit of failure is a mistake. String a bunch of mistakes together and you ultimately end up with failure. Air crash investigators have refined this concept. They understand that it’s a chain of events, rather than a single problem, that leads to disaster. The problems is that when mistakes are occurring in real time they may not be so obvious, and they tend to compound until the situation is no longer recoverable. But it’s worthy to note that air crash investigators have actually come up with new procedures and technologies that have resulted in a dramatic decrease in failures over the last few decades. When lives are at stake, people tend to pay attention. So how could we apply such processes to business?

Doomed to fail?

As an entrepreneur, I have made my share of mistakes. As a venture capitalist, I have a front row seat to the Olympics of Mistakes. I observe lots and lots of them, but rarely do I see new kinds of mistakes invented. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: Most of the mistakes that lead to failure have long and illustrious histories in the Moron Hall of Fame, yet they continue to be committed.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem must not be very good at passing along institutional knowledge, despite the thousands of articles published on the topic. Or perhaps another dynamic is at play: Perhaps the very attribute it takes for entrepreneurs to succeed also dooms them to fail. They have blinders on. Innovators have a crystal-clear vision of what their success will look like; rarely do they visualize being seated in the middle of a smoking crater wearing a dunce cap. Their mantra is “failure is not an option.”

The Moron Hall of Fame

The old adage says if you are not making mistakes you are not trying enough new things. I wholeheartedly agree. However, if you repeat the same sort of mistakes and ultimately fail, you will secure a position in the Moron Hall of Fame. In Part Two, I will provide a guided tour of some of the major exhibits in this esteemed institution with the hope that you just might take those blinders off and realize that the failure looming over the horizon bearing your name may actually be avoidable.

Last updated: Nov 26, 2013

BARRY SCHULER is managing director for DFJ Growth and the former chairman and CEO of America Online. He is credited with being one of the pioneers of the modern Internet.
@BSchuler




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