The Hush of Closures and the Roar of Success

Amongst the startup community there is a “celebration of failure.” This phrase is intentionally shocking. Who wants to “fail fast?” What does that mean? For those in the know, it means, “we learned what not to do” and for the very best, we learned what not to do very inexpensively!

In most large organizations the discontinuation of projects is quietly swept under the rug. In a startup the pivot is monumental. There is not anything but survival. One cannot just leave one’s self. The individual must figure it out. However, at the larger organization there is a working core solution that funds experiments at the fringes. This reality makes it possible to try things. The S&P500 of old had R&D departments where they spent fractions of revenue working on new product and service development. Today, entire tech companies rage billions at new development just to keep pace. Many of these initiatives work, many do not. The jarring reality of these decisions makes many nauseous. So the hush becomes the kind thing to do.

But the roar of success is trumpeted. Or, at least it is amplified and made larger than it otherwise is or was –exaggerating the we-never-fail attitude that many want. The highlight reels sell tickets. Once in the door the refunds are not available.

The brutal facts are business is messy. Product and service development is iterative. There are some proven methods to iterate on the right things with strong customers, but the true break throughs are raw and dangerous. The hope is explosive outcomes that cover the majority of initiative’s losses. This powerlaw outcome is everywhere in business. Even the most conservative investors confess reality of one or two decisions making 80% or more of their returns on. Remove those and the outcomes are paltry. Hit a few year stretch without an hit song and the exit door is crowded.

The real artists play for themselves. They cannot live without it. My wife and I watched an old Grey’s Anatomy (not an endorsement by me… but my wife) and in it was a patient. This patient was a famous violinist with a bad heart. The cardiologist is a major fan of this violinist and has the honor of saving the violinists’ life with a pacemaker. Years later the violinist comes back to the surgeon frustrated. “I’ve lost my rhythm.” He plays the violin to demonstrate his degradation. He demands the surgeon remove the pacemaker if at the risk of death. His life and his art are one and the same. The surgeon, bolster by his friend’s encouragement of his own talent, performs the surgery. He dies in the operating room. The surgeon is obviously sad for having lost the artist, but the audience is left with a sense not of failure, but of pursuit. Both men pursued what they loved and were gifted to do.