Why failures are important for entrepreneurs
Most first person accounts of business entrepreneurs, while admitting the occasional failure, generally dwell on the clear vision, careful planning, and flawless execution of seemingly perfectly conceived and implemented projects, that leave the listener marveling at the almost superhuman capabilities of the speaker. My experience has been quite different, and my enterprise was, from the beginning, built on serendipity and/or good luck, the ability to quickly seize an unexpected opportunity, and most importantly, to learn from mistakes, and try something else. While I did plan, and base my plans on data and not guesswork or hope, nevertheless there was something that kept reminding me that “the plans of mice and men gang aft agley”, as the poet Burns famously observed. But, when I now look back on this rather unusual approach to building an enterprise, I reckon that there was a method to the madness after all.
Trial and error is a commonly used phrase, but one that is loaded with meaning that is quite profound. This is the method perfected by evolution to produce all the marvels of nature that we see around us. It is by continuous trials and failures, that evolution selects the combination of attributes that equip an organism to survive and thrive. This is a ceaseless process that goes on every second of every minute of every hour since time began, and will go on remorselessly till the end of time. Just as magnificent mountains and gigantic features are chiseled out of hard rock by the ceaseless action of water and wind and temperature, evolution too accomplishes miracles through trial and error. In fact, it is often the error that results in an attribute that enables a new species to emerge that is better adapted to changes in the environment.
Trial and error is the main tool of the entrepreneur, who, after all, creates a new product or service by an imaginative reordering of available resources, to meet a hitherto unfulfilled need. Trial and error is the instrument without which innovation is not possible. While knowledge and theory help in directing investigation and enquiry along a particular direction, it is the many trials and failures that finally disclose the solution, often in an unexpected way. This too has been my experience.
Failures therefore should be understood as a stepping stone on the unending path of innovation, of seeking answers to newer problems that keep emerging all the time. Without failure, there would be no innovation. But, this is not a question of blind tossing of a coin, and hoping for something to turn up. As Pasteur said: chance favours the prepared mind. Therefore, it is only a question posed by an enquiring mind seeking a solution to a specific problem, that can find a solution in a random or chance event.
In India, our education system has endowed an entirely negative connotation to the word “failure”. This usually means failing to secure the minimum score required to pass in a test. It is accompanied by shame and disgrace, within the family, as well as among peers. It means watching your friends go on to the next class while you will now join the junior class to repeat the year. Young people often do foolish things when faced with failure in exams, with tragic consequences. Therefore, we are dealing with something here that is not shrugged off as a learning experience but is seen as a stigma that will not wash off easily. This has to change, if we are to become a truly innovative society.
I recall a talk with my wife when our daughter was at school. She was concerned that the girl would fail in her exams and would not be promoted to the next class. My answer was: Then she will learn an important lesson. I remember that my answer did not please my wife, who stalked out of the room furious, thinking I was being flippant about a serious matter, when I was actually quite serious!
Constantly trying new things, failing fast and quickly moving on to the next trial, is the best way to keep moving towards an objective. One must learn to be sceptical of “master plans”, and prefer instead a clear objective, and a set of guidelines within which to operate, leaving one free to try various options.
About the guest author:
C Balagopal is Managing Director of TERUMO PENPOL Limited, a world leader in high-tech medical products. He has won several awards, including National R&D Award for successful commercialization of Indigenous Technology by Ministry of Science & Technology, Govt. of India in 1995 and National Export Awards every year from 1994-95 onwards. Before becoming an entrepreneur, he was with the Indian Administrative Service, and has worked in various posts in Manipur and Kerala.