The Failure Cult of Silicon Valley

I’ve lived and worked in Silicon Valley for nearly two years now, having been sent out by my British employer tasked with finding innovative solutions we could use in the company. It’s been a whirlwind two years, starting with a wide-eyed wonder and magpie-like attempts to see and do everything, and progressing to a more mature and selective way of dealing with this complex ecosystem.

Silicon Valley is certainly a place like no other, filled with so much determination, a fortuitous mix of educators pumping out talent, and savvy financial bankers to indulge in their ‘game-changing’ inventions. On the one hand, I am consistently impressed and encouraged by the conviction of the young entrepreneurs that I meet (at least 1000 by this point), but then there is the part of me that feels a certain sadness knowing just how few of these bold ventures will get far enough to actually change any games. Startups fail for so many reasons - a product without a market; teams who don’t gel; immature leadership; misguided assumptions…

Of course in the Valley ‘failure’ is just another form of success, a proud badge worn by the serial founder like a battle scar. I remember early in a meeting with a particular startup, the CEO using his past experience at WebVan as a mark of his credentials. Having not long before read WebVan’s notorious story as the poster child of the dotcom bubble and a masterclass in how to burn through cash without achieving anything, I sat there wondering why anyone would boast of such a history. It was my first noticeable experience of the cult of failure that the Valley revels in. By telling us of his WebVan background, the CEO was showing that he knew how not to do things; failure being the ultimate form of education to the Silicon set.

The call to ‘fail fast’ has become so oft repeated in the tech community that people have inevitably begun to react against it. One of the most interesting Silicon Valley thinkers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speak is Tom Chi, formerly of GoogleX and now working for enigmatic startup FACT0RY (where corporate C-Suites learn to innovate and problem-solve using rapid iterative techniques). Tom’s view on the cult of failure is that while the underlying ethos is sound, the wording is all wrong, and we should talk about ‘learning fast’ not ‘failing fast’. His compelling argument is that there is inherent negativity that comes with the word failure, and so the psychological associations of the word cause an unwanted shift in how we approach innovation.

To understand what this means, let us also look at another backlash I’m beginning to see in innovation communities. Corporate innovation groups are often built on a stage-gate or funnel model: you start with an almost infinite pool of ideas and then pass them down through different tests until you have only a very small number of the most rigorously stress-tested ideas. Your gates may include measures of feasibility, cost-to-benefit ratio analysis, alignment to strategic objectives, etcetera. The majority of ideas fail at one of these gates and are de-scoped, conserving resources to work on only those ideas most likely to succeed and to succeed with the most positive, cost-effective outcomes.

One of my favourite descriptions of the inherent flaws of the funnel model came from Jay van Zyl, Founder and CEO of corporate innovation consultants Innosect Labs. At a Bank Innovators Council meeting last year, Jay talked about how these stage gates have the effect of treating ideas like threats rather than opportunities. Companies are trying to identify any possible flaws in an idea so they can throw it out of the pile and keep digging for the most flawless ideas. In actual fact, all these ideas have inherent value, either as a whole idea or by extracting a useful part. It may simply be that the ideas don’t make sense now, but would be fantastic one year from now. If we use stage gates to kick them out of the review process, the danger is that we see them as permanently disregarded and don’t bother to consider them in future.

This comes back to Tom Chi’s distinction between failure and learning. Tom has a beautiful metaphor of ideas being like little lights which switch on across the map of the brain. The more of these lights we can turn on, the more we can light up our thinking and connect disparate ideas to form new interpretations and find surprising solutions to problems. Described as ‘learning fast’, the process of brainstorming ideas (or reviewing countless different startups) becomes a rapid process of switching on more lights and enhancing your creative potential. Going instead from the angle of ‘failing fast’ it is like we are trying to extinguish lights in order to clearly see a few things which work. We test something, say ‘that didn’t work’ and cause a mental black mark on that idea.

You see this all the time in the corporate world, where you take someone an interesting idea and their immediate reaction is ‘we looked at three years ago and it was a disaster’, or ‘such-and-such company tried that in 2010 and nobody wanted it’. These statements are not accurate assessments of the idea now and can lead to great ideas being unceremoniously dismissed. The quality of an idea is shaped by an intricate web of factors which need to coalesce in order to be successful, meaning that ideas almost always deserve to be reassessed when situations change. The obvious examples to quote here are the iPod and the iPad, they were neither the first mp3 player nor the first tablet computer, but they caught the best alignment of success factors.

Another great example that I learned from one of my Venture Capital contacts was that of social media investment. The early rounds of social media were eagerly invested in by the Silicon Valley community, but investors got their fingers badly burnt. When it came time for a young Mark Zuckerberg to raise capital for his fledgling company, Silicon Valley investors snorted derisively, knowing full well that social media was a failed experiment with no money to be made. Facebook instead got its early investment from VCs on the East Coast and elsewhere, and the Silicon Valley investors got some regrets.

Going back to Tom’s metaphor - as you mark ideas as failures you switch out lights, causing your future self to miss connections or dismiss ideas too readily. The subtle but important shift is to not see an unsuccessful venture as a failure, but to pause and pull out all of the successful learnings made on the way. Perhaps you set out to sell one product but noticed actually there was a market for another, perhaps users hated the software you built but loved a particular design element. Rather than putting out a light you are now turning on a little constellation of new lights, ones that future you can connect into new and dazzling ideas.