Failure is not an option. It’s a mantra adopted by the military, politicians, athletes and businesses around the world.
And it’s totally wrong.
Consider this quote from Michael Jordan, one of the most successful and recognisable athletes of all time:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
You’ll find similar quotes from leaders in all spheres of life. Nobody succeeds without setbacks so why are businesses so afraid to fail?
When most people trot out “failure is not an option” they are already at or near the top of their respective trees. And failure really does feel like it’s not an option when the fall could break your neck. But what these people forget is that, to get where they are today, they failed a lot.
But because businesses need to keep making money they get stuck just keeping the cogs turning, and when a new innovation could result in those cogs getting jammed up, well, people don’t like it. And it isn’t just self-interest. If a major failure means dozens or hundreds of people losing their jobs, as well as substantial amounts of money invested, the appeal of flying too close to the sun becomes muted.
And when you don’t want to take risks you can no longer innovate, and if you don’t innovate these days you’ll soon get left behind and become irrelevant.
There is one way to break out of this cycle, and that’s to start thinking like businesses that do fail, but also enjoy spectacular successes: start-ups.


According to this article on Statistic Brain, 50% of start-ups fail within 4 years. The data comes from a study carried out this year by the University of Tennessee, and you’ll find figures elsewhere that put the total failure rate at 90%. That probably doesn’t inspire many owners of successful, established businesses to act like start-ups. But here’s a way to do it that limits risk.
Set up a small team within your business, and give them the freedom to innovate. This means:

  • Giving them a budget to spend how they wish
  • Freeing them from the usual red tape of seeking management approval for everything
  • Letting them know that failure won’t result in negative consequences

With this culture around them they can begin to take the risks that start-ups are known for, and which are the breeding ground of innovation.
Remember the budget doesn’t need to be big either. By taking on the mindset of failing fast and failing small innovation can be quicker and less costly, as you only put money into the things that work. Start-ups are rarely flush with cash, and it is often these restraints that require them to think so creatively and push the limits.


There is only one instance where I believe failure is not an option, and that is failure to adapt what you do to the realities of the world. All businesses have to change what they do with the wider changes in consumer behaviour, technology and the rest of the world. Fail in this and you’ll quickly find your business left behind by the relentless onslaught of change.
We’ve made a virtue out of sticking to our guns, carrying on even in the face of facts, and while it is certainly noble in many cases it is also inherently stupid. It’s better to live to fight another day, learn from your mistakes and change your battle plan. It could be the case that the job you’re doing right now may disappear in the future, and these changes can creep up on you.
I was watching the BBC show Victorian Bakers recently, and what struck me (aside from a desire to get some artisan bread the next time I did the family shop) was how something as non-digital as baking bread can serve as an example of the perils of not adapting to change.
The contestants all enjoyed the process of using old school baking methods, and savoured the taste of the end result, but as one remarked, it just simply wouldn’t work in the modern market.
It’s easy to romanticise old ways of doing things, and while they may have been great for the time in which they were dominant, once the environment changes if you don’t adapt you’re destined to be made obsolete.
So accept failure, see it for the necessary precursor to success that it is and learn from it each time, because each time you fail, success is one step closer.
Interested in finding out how you can make digital transformation a success? Then read our ‘Unlocking Your Digital Transformation‘ event round up.