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The art of failure


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Many thousands of words have been dedicated in the past few months to Sri Lanka’s economic challenges but most of them end with the same piece of advice - Sri Lanka must encourage exports and find ways to attract investment. But this is easier said than done because of Sri Lanka’s intricate mishmash of high debt, inefficient government, low growth, sluggish reforms, an aging population and limited basket of exports. The golden goal is to promote entrepreneurship but for that Sri Lankans may need to rethink their views on failure. 

The modern version of entrepreneurship is technology-focused ideas, which is at the core of the startup culture. However, having a thriving startup culture requires a complex ecosystem that requires hefty investment in research and development, startup platforms and long-term support to ensure that startups are global at birth. It is therefore understandable that cities such as Boston and New York as well as Silicone Valley have led the global growth of startups because they organically provide the ingredients through a long history of high standards of education, free movement of people and even providing attractive places to live.   

Following the success of mega innovation companies dozens of countries around the world have attempted to duplicate these ecosystems in the hope that they can birth the next Google or Facebook. But what is extremely relevant for Sri Lanka’s baby steps at entrepreneurship, partly bolstered by Enterprise Sri Lanka and other Government policies, is understanding the importance of failure and indeed celebrating it. 

Celebrating failure is anathema to average Sri Lankans. From childhood most people are instilled with a fear of failure. But to be a successful entrepreneur or startup one must be ready to fail and fail repeatedly. Fostering a culture that understands the importance of failure is necessary but this is extremely rare. It is not just in Sri Lanka that children are censured for not coming first in class and pushed to conventional professions because they are seen as less risky but the technological and economic changes sweeping the world have made these views outdated. 

Obviously it is not just about failing. Anyone who has had to deal with the turbulent world of startups would say that the best way to fail is to fail early and fail cheap. This too is a cultural oddity in Sri Lanka. Understanding that failure is not the end but to learn from it and keep going requires practical assistance but also social acceptance. Elsewhere research is encouraged into failures so that other startups can avoid the same mistakes. This is how the ecosystem expands.             

Even before startups, products from potato chips to post-it notes were created by making mistakes. In fact, in each case, the inventor was attempting to create something completely different and thought that he had failed with the final product. 

Failure, mistakes, mishaps — they all play a vital role in helping employees learn and grow too. Unfortunately, however, organisations penalise mistakes and create employees who are risk-averse and too shy or nervous to try anything new. The best companies are those that encourage failure, embrace out-of-the-box thinking and allow employees to make mistakes and see what happens.


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