Do You Have the Courage to Fail?

By Holly G. Green

If you follow the tech industry you probably noticed Google’s decision to shut down their much-ballyhooed Google Wave after only one year of operation. You might also have noticed the “wave” of criticism from technology bloggers and industry writers that immediately followed.

For those not familiar with it, Google Wave is a real-time collaboration tool that combines various forms of online communication. Some industry experts predicted that it would dramatically change the way we communicate and collaborate online. But it never developed the user base that Google anticipated, so they decided to pull the plug on the product. According to their blog, Google will continue to maintain the site through the end of the year, and will extend the technology into other Google projects. But they will cease all development of Google Wave as a standalone product.

Many industry writers took Google to task for this decision. Why did they shut it down after such a short time? How could they misjudge the market so badly? And with all their talent, creativity and resources, how could they make such a costly blunder? I disagree. I say good for Google for recognizing a mistake and knowing when to cut their losses and move on!

Far too often, companies stay the course when the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that a sharp turn is required. Even experienced business leaders will frequently bury their heads in the sand and plow ahead with a product or service that the market clearly doesn’t value. In this case, to their credit, Google saw the writing on the wall and made the tough decision to terminate the Wave. I also say good for Google for having the courage to fail.

Failure is an integral part of innovation, especially the kind that disrupts markets. If you’re not willing to take risks and experience failure, it greatly reduces your chances of coming up with real breakthrough products or services. Why do most companies have a hard time admitting failure? The easy answer is that people don’t want to look bad. Or they fear losing their jobs. Or they keep thinking that if they stick with it, success is just around the corner. But there’s more to it than that.

Admitting failure requires us to challenge some of our most basic assumptions about ourselves and our notions of success. It requires that we examine the way we think and make decisions, an often uncomfortable and unsettling process.

For example, a common theme in many product failures is overconfidence in (or inaccurate assessment of) our own abilities. The underlying assumption is that we’ve thought through everything about the product, so there must be something wrong with the market, the customer, the economy, the timing, etc. In other words, it’s not our fault.

Another common assumption, and one that is deeply embedded in our culture, says that hard work and persistence will eventually win out. This often goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that we’ve invested so much time and money in the product that we can’t afford to quit. Month after month the market indicates that it doesn’t value the product. Yet we keep thinking that we just need a little more time to make it work.

Perhaps the most difficult assumption to overcome is the idea that behind every product failure lies a simple answer. In our increasingly complex world, we crave simple answers. So we seek to blame failures on one thing going wrong versus a combination of factors. More often than not, however, careful examination uncovers a host of reasons for the failure, not the least of which are our own misguided assumptions about our customers and our markets.

I also give Google credit for how they’re handling the situation. I don’t see any heads rolling or fingers being pointed. I don’t see any public hand wringing or browbeating. And I don’t see any signs of “We’ll never do that again!”  Instead, Google has simply made a decision to cut their losses, learn from the mistakes, and move on.

This no-nonsense attitude sends a powerful message to employees and the general public that Google values innovation and considers it an integral part of how they do business. More important, it shows they are willing to take risks and accept the consequences when they don’t pan out.

Others may chastise Google for pulling the plug too soon and missing the mark so badly with Google Wave. But I applaud their good business judgment and their willingness to fail – two leadership skills we could all use more of!

Read other articles and learn more about Holly G. Green.

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