Have you got licence to fail?

Tereza Urbánková

Many inspirational quotes on success seem to have one aspect in common – they combine both success and failure. Considering that some companies nowadays even ‘permit’ failure, perhaps there is something in this dichotomy worth exploring further.

Take Winston Churchill’s “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. Or James Joyce’s “Mistakes are the portals of discovery”. Such statements may imply that failure is not opposite to success but actually a key factor in achieving our aspirations and goals; it is apparent here we don’t talk only about the act of failing, but about a journey on which we learn and change as we keep on progressing in our career and life.

Nowadays, in this fast-paced and continuously changing world, the ability to adjust is more important than ever, as well as the ability to learn through failures about how we need to adapt and grow to be successful. According to evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin, “it is not the strongest that survives; it is the one that is most adaptable to change.” For many, however, a failure may seem to be an unsurmountable hurdle. Be it failing in a job, community, social media, relationships, family, or elsewhere, it can bring down even some tough individuals.

Having grown up in the environment that didn’t support achieving success outside mandatory boundaries or being original and different taught me a lesson. In deep communism, many people were failing one way or another: professionally, when they tried to succeed outside the limitations and were pushed back to their place by ruling authorities; morally, when their success was achieved through collaboration with the regime; or personally, when they didn’t even have enough courage to try for the fear on implications on their dearest ones. Actually, a professional failure was at times perceived as a better option than success because success may have implied you became a regime ally. This naturally changed after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when everybody suddenly acquired an equal opportunity to try to succeed, and many didn’t know how to handle it.

It may be, however, surprising that nowadays some companies encourage and allow failure, and effectively celebrate it; they perceive it as a necessary means to building an innovative culture. Businesses such as these aim at creating a fiercely experimental culture that is disrupting industries. The two that come to mind are Coca-Cola and Amazon. Do you remember the ‘New Coke’ fiasco in 1985? In the effort to reenergise the iconic Coca Cola brand, this move created the firestorm of consumer protest which ensued and subsequently ended with the return of the original formula. Last year, its CEO publicly talked about going beyond the fear of failure and shaking off a culture of cautiousness. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, arguably the most successful entrepreneur in the world, makes the case directly when he claims his company’s growth and innovation is built on its failures. To prove his words, the Fire phone fiasco is probably comparable to the New Coke attempt. As he explains: “This is about taking bold bets and if you do, they are experiments and you don’t know ahead of time if they are going to work. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”

The message from these CEOs is as easy to understand as it is hard for most of us to put into practice. We tend to take failure hard because we forget that success is achieved through trying, and trying often ends in failure. Without failure that ‘forces’ us to reassess and rethink how we do things, progress would be impossible. There are many business leaders and organisations that espouse the virtues of innovation and creativity, yet so many of these same leaders and companies live in fear of mistakes and missteps, bringing barriers to innovative efforts.

Nevertheless, would you permit any failure? There are failures and there are failures. Some mistakes may be fatal – products which can harm people, for example. At no time can management be casual about issues of health and safety, so encouraging failure doesn’t mean abandoning supervision, quality control, or respect for sound practices. Just the opposite. It requires senior leaders to be more engaged, not less.

Although mistakes are inevitable when launching innovative programmes, management teams cannot shy away from their responsibility to assess the nature of failures. Some are excusable errors; others may be much more serious. Those willing to take a close look at what happened and why can usually tell the difference. Failure-tolerant leaders identify excusable mistakes and approach them as outcomes to be reviewed, understood, and built upon, and as an opportunity to learn, grow and move forward.

Obviously, every mistake comes with a short-term setback. While these setbacks may be impossible to ignore, try not to dwell on them as focusing on people’s mistakes will only make them increasingly afraid of failure and less likely to take the necessary risks to do truly outstanding work. In a nutshell, turning failures into opportunities and moving forward, a little bit wiser, is the best way to approach this topic.

Failure forms an integral part of our lives. And if you don’t try, and fail, you are failing to live.


By Tereza Urbánková


Tereza Urbánková is a PR, communications and marketing professional with 20 years’ experience and proven success in delivering award-winning communications programmes for multinational companies operating in industries such as hospitality, retail, IT, defence, broadcast, logistics, pharma and engineering. After having lived and worked in the UK for 11 years, she now works in Germany for Boehringer Ingelheim, a global pharmaceutical company, as Head of Global External Communication, Animal Health. Tereza is a member of the Executive Committee of the Czech British Chamber of Commerce in London. She speaks Czech, English, Spanish and Russian and can be reached through her LinkedIn profile.