Embracing the Fear of Failure: Why Vulnerable Teams Are the Most Innovative Teams

6 minute read

Upland Admin

I have a quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship In A Republic” pinned up next to my desk. It goes like this:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”

Failure is a byproduct of great effort, not a sign of weakness

I love this speech (the entire speech is worth a read) because it reminds me that failure is a byproduct of great effort, not a sign of weakness. I want to continually remind myself and my team to make ourselves vulnerable to failure—even though it’s difficult—because vulnerability is the key to unlocking the innovation and creative potential in each and every one of us.

Vulnerability Leads to Creativity

If you look through a history of great inventions and businesses, you’ll see a common thread: these people didn’t let a fear of failure stop them.

Edison failed thousands of times. Steve Jobs was told no. Nikola Tesla was told no. Oprah Winfrey was told no. History has been made over and over by people who not only kept throwing themselves into situations where they were likely to fail, but they actually celebrated their failures.

Vulnerability is the key to unlocking innovation

Elon Musk is a perfect example for our day. He launches rocket after rocket into the sky in his quest to transform the aeronautics industry and many have crashed and burned. Publicly, all over the news. Yet he keeps trying.

When Musk came up with his ideas for the electric car, major auto manufacturers told him no, absolutely not. But that didn’t stop him. He founded Tesla, which is completely disrupting the automotive industry.

The reality is if you think about all the great innovators of our time, it’s the ones who don’t let a “no” stop them who have done the best work. They didn’t listen to the critic in the stands because they knew failure isn’t a weakness.

If my team is censoring their wackiest, most far-fetched ideas because they’re afraid to look stupid or lose stature in the office or to our clients, then we as a company are missing out.

You sometimes hear these people described as “not afraid of failure,” but that misses the point. They’re only human and are probably as afraid as anyone else.

They didn’t let the fear control the situation—they embrace it and turn fear of failure into a strength.

If They Don’t Trust You, They Won’t Give You Their Best

I’ve been talking about the boss so far, the entrepreneur. These people can afford to fail because they answer mainly to themselves.

However, for an organization to be truly innovative it needs to figure out how to cultivate that same level of vulnerability with its employees on all levels. How do you go from “the man in the arena” to “the whole team in the arena?” That’s harder to do.

My colleagues and I talk a lot about trust as a company. I want us to be constantly trying new things, to be striving valiantly even if it means coming up short. I want every person on my team to know that there is no effort without error. If my team is censoring their wackiest, most far-fetched ideas because they’re afraid to look stupid or lose stature in the office or to our clients, then we as a company are missing out.

After all, the goal for every brand should be a consistently great consumer experience, and teams can’t get aligned and collaborate toward that goal if they don’t trust that it’s okay to swing and miss sometimes. They’ll be aligned with their fears, not an agenda of innovation.

How do you foster trust and vulnerability?

To get there, you have to tear down these myths.

Myth 1: The loudest voice (or most senior title) has the best ideas.

To have a really high-functioning, innovative team, you need to remove the hierarchy. If you have team members who are constantly worrying about performing in front of their bosses, they’ll  self-censor. Hierarchy creates a tension that feels unsafe.

Myth 2: Good isn’t good enough.

Of course we’re striving for truly spectacular gems in our work. But if along the way we silence people who threw out a merely good idea, we’re not going to hear them the next time they come up with a truly great one. The pressure to be brilliant can demotivate if it punishes people for the steps along the way to brilliance.

Say “yes, and” not “no, but” as a way to go from good to great

Second City, a popular improv and theater group, knows a thing or two about their craft. In their great book Yes, And they teach us how pithing the “merely good” can be springboards and catalysts to unlocking more ideas. Say “yes, and” not “no, but” as a way to go from good to great.

Myth 3. It’s all about the individual.

For every great man or woman mentioned above, there is a company like Google that lets ideas, big and small, bubble up. Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t invent Gmail. They created an experimental culture where other teams could come up with that idea. Great teams trust each other and back each other up. They pick each other up. They don’t act as individuals. Great teams know that they’re competing against the problem on the table, not against each other.

I truly believe that the most brilliant ideas never come out unless you create that arena of vulnerability, which is built on a foundation of trust and communication.

If you want to stand among the greats, you have to allow yourself to fail. And that goes the same for your brand. If you want your brand to take its place among the Apples and Teslas and Googles of the world, you need to create a safe space where everyone on your team can be vulnerable.

That’s how you’ll earn your place in the history books of innovation. The future is ours to write if we all embrace failing forward as a team. Think about it. Who on your team needs your permission to take risks? Go ahead and give it to them.


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