American businesses are scared.

That's what a recent survey of 1,283 of the most innovative thinkers in America showed. Even those leaders lauded as the most disruptive and risk-taking say they are still scared of--failure

And in an economy whose fragile recovery hinges on bold, new ideas, that's not a good sign. 

Big Think and Singularity University, two organizations deeply interested in exponential, technologically driven change, partnered to execute a research study of top tech executives and thinkers and their views on disruptive innovation.  The study of 1,200+ US based executives revealed an overabundance of caution as businesses’ biggest obstacle to innovating consistently and disrupting their industries.  By a huge margin, the biggest gap between perceived benefit (63%) and successful practice (37%) was observed in the area of organizational approaches to "failing fast" and experimentation.  

The results are particularly notable given the tech-savvy and risk-acceptant nature of the survey's respondents -- graduates of SU's executive education program and tech thought leaders from Big Think's global expert network. These are individuals whose reputations and success have been built upon bold, risky moves. But while the entrepreneurial gospel of experimentation and willingness to fail rings out in corporate boardrooms across America, it is somehow failing to translate into corporate structure. Companies are talking the talk of innovation, but they're not building the "fail safe" structures that would enable them to walk the walk. 

Famed author and economist Tim Harford, who has been called “Britain’s Malcolm Gladwell”, contends that it's not enough to simply communicate support for the idea of failure; rather, organizations must help their people develop successful mindsets with which to engage their failures.

In this video from Big Think Edge, Tim Harford illustrates how to develop a successful mindset for failing through the story of a 1950's religious cult. Its leader, Dorothy Martin, prophesied that the world would be destroyed on a specific date. Martin’s followers believed that aliens would arrive at midnight to collect true believers and take them to the planet "Clarion". Psychologist Leon Festinger, who had infiltrated the cult, studied the members’ reaction when the aliens didn’t arrive and the world didn't end. As Festinger had predicted, the cultists couldn't accept their mistake. On the contrary: they embraced their beliefs more fully.

Harford uses this example to illustrate the concept of cognitive dissonance. All of us, he says, experience cognitive dissonance to a greater or lesser degree whenever we make a mistake, particularly about something that’s important to us. We are most seriously at risk when our self-image is under threat.

The antidote to this phenomenon is to prepare to be a successful failure. We need to have a successful mindset and a plan of action for learning from our mistakes.

A Successful Mindset

  • Understand that the more invested you are, the harder it will be to acknowledge failure. Separate yourself from your mistake so that you can move forward.

How to Be a Successful Failure

  • Try new things.
  • Experiment where failure is survivable.
  • Gather feedback. Ask yourself what success might look like. Ask others for constructive criticism.

The willingness to take risks and survive multiple, sometimes spectacular failures for every resounding success has always been an implicit principle of creative leadership. But in order to maximize our potential as individuals and in organizations, we need to make it an explicit value, and to build habits that put to bed once and for all the unfounded fears that hold us back.