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Fear of failure stifles biz innovation

But lessons abound in duds, bombs and flops

This is nail-biting time at the major studios as executives await the launches of their megabudget summer tentpoles.

“It’s like starting 10 new businesses in two months,” one CEO told me, and fear of failure pervades the CEO circuit.

To ease this tension, I’m urging studio hierarchs to read the April issue of the Harvard Business Review, which is entirely devoted to the f-word. At Harvard, the f-word means failure, with articles in the issue analyzing the causes of failure along with methods of recovery.

Since failure is more common than success in today’s business environment (Hollywood would agree), the Review advocates the doctrine of “intelligent failure,” which emphasizes studying failure and learning from it.

“Executives hide mistakes or pretend the mistakes were always part of the master plan,” writes Rita Gunther McGrath. “Failures become un-discussable.”

During my years working at three studios, I, too, noticed that no one wanted to analyze why projects failed, while there was always a long line to get credit for hits.

“Failures are a gift,” writes A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter & Gamble. “Unless you view them that way, you won’t learn from failure.”

Whenever his giant company became arrogant or lackadaisical in introducing new products, he notes, it would get blown away by smaller competitors — even given P&G’s marketing heft.

Cited in the Review are many confessionals by corporate players who claim they learned from mistakes.

Gordon Ramsay, the bombastic chef, cites how, to drum up publicity, he once stole his own restaurant reservation book and pretended it was an evil plot by the competition (the scheme blew up in his face.)

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all,” J.K. Rowling declares.

The upshot, advises the Review, is that during performance reviews, executives should demand subordinates to “show me your scrap heap.”

With so many careers going up in smoke, the only way to cope is to develop programs for “resilience training,” argues Martin E.P. Seligman, professor of psychology at the U of Pennsylvania. Programs with this aim are being successfully tested by the U.S. Army, where resilience is vital in overcoming leadership failure and combat trauma.

Seligman describes a phenomenon he calls “learned helplessness,” wherein failure inculcates passivity and the expectation of repeated setbacks. To combat this syndrome, one path is to cite Babe Ruth’s homily that “every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

During the coming weeks, Hollywood might benefit richly from the practice of “intelligent failure” — even though some of its movies could be labeled as uniquely unintelligent. Much of the output — sequels and prequels — represents an effort to replicate past success, even though some of the ventures being replicated ended up in red ink.

Babe Ruth would often swing and miss, but it didn’t cost him anything. Hollywood’s swings this summer are mind-bendingly expensive. Come fall, there will be an urgent need for some thoughtful resilience.

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