Over 50% of startups fail (and that number goes up to 75% for venture backed startups). The same is true of about three quarters of corporate transformations, which is probably why the average lifespan on the S&P 500 continues to shrink. These statistics tell a humbling story: few significant endeavors ever actually succeed.
So it's probably not surprising that we've come to glorify failure. We are urged to "fail fast" and are cheered on when we do. Failure, after all, is hard evidence that you've tried something difficult and paid the price. Yet failure, as anyone who actually experienced it knows well, is a horrible, painful thing.
As I explain in my book Cascades, great transformations are achieved not by glorifying failure, but when we learn from mistakes and begin to do things differently. That's how Lou Gerstner pulled off a historic turnaround at IBM, General Stanley McChrystal plucked victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq and Gandhi brought independence to India. Here's how you can do it too:
Ask the Hard Questions
Go to just about any innovation conference and you will find some pundit on the stage telling the story of some corporate giant, usually Blockbuster, Kodak or Xerox, that stumbled and failed. It is then explained that these firms were run by silly, foolish people who simply didn't want to see the signs of disruption around them.
These stories are almost never true and, in fact, should be seen as ridiculous on their face. It takes no small amount of intelligence, drive and ambition to run a significant enterprise so to suggest that executives managing highly successful businesses were utter dopes beggars belief. The truth is that smart, hard working people fail all the time.
Once you realize that it forces you to ask some hard questions. Why did these smart successful people fail? Why weren't the dangers lurking more obvious? What hidden forces were working against them? Why did they think that they actions they undertook, after no small amount of deliberation, were the best of the available options?
Consider the case of Mahatma Gandhi and his Himalayan miscalculation. In 1919, he organized a series of demonstrations to protest against unjust laws passed by the British Raj. These were successful at first, but soon got out of hand and eventually led to the massacre at Amritsar, in which British soldiers left hundreds dead and more than a thousand wounded.
Most people would have simply concluded that the British were far too cruel and brutal to be dealt with peacefully. Gandhi, however, looked for the error in his own actions and learned from his mistakes. A decade later, rather than embark on a wholesale revolt, he identified a keystone change that would break the logjam. Today, both the salt march that resulted, and Gandhi himself, are icons.
Test Your Hypotheses (Cheaply)
If you want to get a project going in a typical organization, the first thing you do is try to procure a big budget. So you write up an impressive business plan, examine the political tea leaves and work your contacts. If you're successful, you can build out a great staff, line up tier-one partners and really hit the ground running.
You also can't make any mistakes. Unless your plan was truly bulletproof from conception (and it never is) or you just get really lucky, you're going to make some big, well-funded, well-staffed blunder that you'll have to scramble to recover from. Unless you catch it early or have the political clout within your organization to get more money, you are likely to fail.
Now consider how Nick Swinmurn started his business. As Eric Ries explained in The Lean Startup, instead of spending money on some expensive marketing study to see if people would buy shoes online, he simply built a cheap site. When he got an order, he would go to the store, buy the pair at retail, and ship it out. He lost money on every sale.
That's a terrible way to run a business, but a great way to test a business hypothesis. Once he knew that people were willing to buy shoes online, he started Zappos, which quickly grew to dominate the market for selling shoes online. It was sold to Amazon in 2009, ten years after Swinmurn started, for $940 million.
Build a Network
We tend to think that success is the result of hard work and talent. Yet look at any category and one brand tends to dominate. There are many search engines, but only one Google, just like there are many smartphone manufacturers, but only one Apple. Both are great products, but they end up taking the vast majority of profits in their industry. Are they really that much better than their competitors?
The truth is, as Albert-Laszlo Barabasi explains in The Formula, is that performance is bounded, but success isn't. You can be better than your competitors, but not that much better. On the other hand, there are no limits to success because networks tend to be dominated by a central node.
To understand why, consider the case of Albert Einstein. Until April 3rd, 1921, he was a prominent scientist, but by no means an icon. In fact, much of his press coverage was negative. But on that date, he arrived in America with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. Reporters covering the event mistook the enormous crowds there to meet Weizmann as fans of Einstein and the story made the first page of all major newspapers.
That, along with his brilliance and endearing personality, is what catapulted Einstein to iconic status. In a similar vein, Google launched its product on the techie-dense Stanford computer network and Apple introduced the iPhone to its already expansive fan base. It's networks, not nodes, that drive success.
Stop Disrupting and Start Solving Problems
Walk down any grocery store aisle and it becomes clear that there is no shortage of ideas. At any given time there are countless opportunities for line extensions, expansions into new categories, partnerships and other things. Executives spend countless hours discussing the merits and demerits of ideas like these.
Yet innovation isn't about ideas, it's about solving problems. That's why most ideas fail, because they don't address a meaningful problem that people really need solved. Nobody really needs a different flavor of cereal, but Zappos, Google and Apple all met needs that people cared about and that made all the difference.
That's why companies that last not only look to solve problems for today's customers, but also take on grand challenges. These are not "bet the company" type of propositions, but long, sustained efforts that seek to fundamentally change the realm of the possible, like Google's more than decade long quest to create a self-driving car or IBM's generational pursuit of quantum computing.
The truth is that you never really have to fail because, if you make your efforts sustainable, you can always learn from mistakes and try again. Failure rarely stems from a lack of effort, but is guaranteed by a myopic vision.