Dealing with the architecture of fear

Just read an article on how the fear of failure is the greatest thing holding back innovation in the business world. One reads these kinds of articles all the time. The essence is that unless we can let go of fear or deal with our deep need to be in control at all times, innovation is stifled.

This is true of course, but I see few articles that talk about how fear of failure in built into the architecture of the organization.

We live in an expert driven culture. Kids raised in schools are taught at an early age that having the answer is everything. Children raise their hands and are given points for the correct answer. Marks and scores are awarded for success – failure gets you remedial help, often crushing dreams and passions at the same time.

In the post-school world, most people are hired in a job interview based on the answers they give. There are millions of words written on how to give a stellar job interview, to land the job of your dreams. It is has to do with giving the right answers.

And so it is no surprise in the organizational world that I see success as the the only way forward and failure as “not an option.” For leaders, embracing failure is almost too risky. Despite the management literature to the contrary, I see very few leaders willing to take the risk that something may fail. Sometimes the failure is wrapped in competence – it’s okay to fail, but not to have losses. In other words, don’t do something I can’t repair.

This is because few of these articles talk about some of the real politiks of organizational life. It’s not that I’m afraid to fail – it’s that I am afraid to lose my job. When there is a scarcity of political capital and credit in an organization, there are multiple games that are played to turn failure into a way to screw the other guy so I don’t lose my job. Blame is deflected, responsibility is assigned elsewhere, and sometimes people will take credit for taking the risk but will lie the failure at the feet of someone else. It’s relatively easy to play on the expert driven culture to advance your own causes at the expense of another’s failings.

The answer to this is for leaders to be engaged in changing the architecture of fear and failure in the organization. It means hiring people into their areas of stretch, not into their areas of core competence. It means embodying risk taking, and creating and maintaining a culture of risk and trust. A single betrayal destroys the fabric of a risk taking team.

I think that means going beyond simply having corporate pep rallies to celebrate failure, or giving incentives for the “best failed idea.” It goes to creating a culture of conversation and collective ownership for successes and failures. It means standing with each other and not advancing your own interests at the expense of something that was tried. It means deeply investigating on an ongoing basis the ways in which we hold each other accountable so that we may work with grace and support, to rush in to help when things go sideways instead of lobbing accusations from the sidelines.

Without changing the architecture of fear, embracing the fear of failure is impossible.


  1. Thanks for this Chris. Rings very true. Especially the part about “work with grace and support, to rush in to help when things go sideways instead of lobbing accusations from the sidelines.” A test of true collaborative work is the conversation that happens when things are rough, undefined, and at risk.

  2. Thanks for the piece, Chris. My work in educational technology is really about facilitating change–being a boundary holder for emergent cultures. The more time I have in this role or in bringing others into this role, the more I am impressed byt how existing structures shape behanviours–invisibly, subconsciously etc. Chip Heath talks about this in his great book, Shift. Much of my work consists of trying to make these structures visible.

  3. Good piece Chris.

    Coincidentally, I read it at the same time I was moving through Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why success always starts with failure. What caught my eye, amongst many things written in Harford’s book was the story of Peter Palchinsky, a Soviet era engineer, who clearly was not afraid to tell the truth rather than simply offering the “right,” state-sponsored answer about some of the early Soviet Union’s most ambitious and ultimately disastrous, megaprojects. Harford boils Palchinsky’s approach down to three principles:
    – Seek out new ideas and try new things
    – When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
    – Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along

    The second is interesting because the original nature of corporations were places where failure was acceptable and survivable, and hence operated with little fear. That’s the whole concept behind “limited liability companies” or LLCs.

    Unfortunately; many of today’s organizations don’t follow that principle. In Harford’s early chapters he outlines the disastrous consequences of the US Army’s approach to winning the war in Iraq, won not through anything Donald Rumsfeld did, but because of the on-the-ground actions of few courageous front-line officers willing to experiment.

    There are however other organizations like Virgin, WL Gore, Google that allow for experimentation and organizational failure. Peter Palchinsky would have loved working for some of those organizations, unfortunately, there was a knock on his door in April 1928 and he was never seen alive again. We have a gift in the principles he left.

  4. Great stuff from both of you as usual. I want to make failure more possible in the world. What a mission!

  5. A truly worthy and noble mission!

  6. You are the teacher I should have had in school!