Japanese businessmen famously fear failure.
But that understanding is horribly incomplete. In fact, there is one type of failure that is admired, almost sought after, in Japan. Today we take a look at the trap of the Japanese glorious failure, see how it’s hurting startups, and examine our options on fixing it.
- Life lessons from Mark the Dog
- When and why failure is feared in Japan
- What is a Glorious Failure, and why it is admired
- How the Glorious Failure is hurting Japanese startups
- What is (probably) the only way to fix this
Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.
I’m recording this episode for release on April 28, 2020. I usually try to make all Disrupting Japan content evergreen. Most of the insights you hear on Disrupting Japan about starting companies in Japan, or building a customer base, market testing, or doing business here will probably be just as valid in ten years as the day it was recorded.
And in some ways, this episode is no exception. The common wisdom is that Japanese. and Japanese founders in particular, are too risk-averse and have too great a fear of failure. Well today, we are going to turn that view on its head.
I’m going to explain that, in truth, Japanese founders don’t fear failure enough, and that’s hurting Japanese startups here.
You know, actually, maybe I am being too pessimistic. Maybe ten years from now, you and I will listen back on this episode and laugh at how things used to be and smile when we think of how much has improved.
But before we start talking about why Japanese founders need to fear failure more, I want to say something about the coronavirus situation, at least as it stands in late April 2020. The world might have changed a lot since then.
Tokyo is currently on official, but actually unofficial, lockdown. There are clusters of idiots in the parks, but most people seem to be taking things seriously. If you go outside, the police won’t arrest you, but they might ask you where you are going, and ask you to consider if you really need to be out. There is no real punishment or anything, but they make you feel kind of guilty, and that seems to be enough to keep most people indoors.
The operations of the Disrupting Japan Studios remain largely unaffected by the shutdown, but that mostly because, Disrupting Japan Studios broadcasts from inside of my wife’s walk-in closet. The acoustics are great in here, but it can get a bit cramped.
So for the past six weeks or so, I’ve been staying in the house with my wife Ami and my dog Mark. And you know, Mark the dog has taught me perhaps the most important lesson about how to deal with the corona crisis and the lockdown.
Mark the dog, he doesn’t really know what’s going on. All he knows is that my wife and I are home all the time, and he’s never alone. There is always someone to lean up against, or play with, or give him some attention.
Mark the dog, doesn’t worry about what might happen tomorrow, and I don’t think he really remembers what happened yesterday. But right now, at this particular moment, he knows he is with the people he loves and who care about him. And for right now, that’s pretty awesome. And believe me, Mark the dog is the happiest, most contented creature you could possibly imagine.
So day-by-day, right. At this particular moment, I hope you are OK and with people you love.
Anyway, let’s put Mark the dog out of the studio. We’re going to talk about why Japanese founders need to fear failure more.
The Failure that is Feared
You’ll often hear that Japanese founders, and Japanese society in general or overly afraid of failure. And in some ways that is true.
Attitudes have shifted for the better over the past few decades, but most kinds of failure here in Japan do cary a certain stigma. From not getting into the right university to not getting your first promotion to failing at your first startup.
Far too often failure is viewed as a kind of permanent condition to be avoided at all costs.
My very first job in Japan, and this was a long time ago, was at Fujitsu, and the section chief, Taniguchi-bucho explained promotions and failure in corporate Japan this way.
“In both America and Japan promotions are based on the point system. Whoever has the most points get promoted. The big difference, however, is that in America you start at zero, and points are awarded for your successes, but in Japan, you start at zero, and points are subtracted for your failures. In Japan zero is the highest possible score.”
So, in America, you succeed by succeeding, but in Japan, you succeed by not failing. This caused me endless frustration early in my career. Like most founders, I’m an optimistic, proactive, get-things-done kind of person.
But there I was sitting in meeting after meeting where everyone in the room would take turns eagerly, confidently pointing out risks or potential problems with the plan, but no one offering a single constructive suggestion.
I eventually figured out, that this was simply how management worked in Japan.
It is the junior staffer’s job to do the research and come up with the plans, and management’s job to de-risk those plans and to approve them. Unless a manager is among colleagues he really trusts, it would foolish for him to suggest a new innovative solution in an open meeting. It’s not his job, and he’d be opening himself up to blame if things failed. Pointing out risks, on the other hand, is seen as helping prevent failure. It’s a sign of competence and teamwork.
When constructive feedback is given, it’s done in private, verbally, and off the record .With the manager safely insulated from any potential failure of the idea.
As you can imagine, this simply doesn’t work at startups. And Japanese startups are emphatically not run like that.
But that aversion to failure is still a big part of the overall business culture in Japan.
The Failure that is Admired
There is, however, one important exception to this rule. There is one kind of failure that is actually respected in Japan. There is one kind fo failure that is, in some ways, admired almost as much as success itself.
And that is the Glorious Failure.
The glorious failure is where every member of the team gives every fiber of their being working together against impossible odds. This is the failure of the hopelessly outmatched sports team that gives everything they have. This is the sales team working 14 hour days trying to close 80% of this quarter’s quota in the last two weeks. This is the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.
And if deep down the team knows success is impossible, but that truth is never spoken, well, that makes the failure even nobler, more glorious.
Glorious failures are respected, even adored in Japan. I mean, sure, someone will have to take the blame and suffer the social consequences, but in general. If you are one of the team members giving your all, you have little to fear from a glorious failure.
And that … is a problem. The option of the Glorious Failure is hurting Japanese startups.
Because being part of a glorious failure means never questioning your teammates or their decisions. It means doing more. Trying harder. Regardless of the odds.
And while that attitude is indeed admirable in an underdog sports team or an outnumbered band of Spartans, those are times where you can’t change the rules. Those are times where convention or contract or fate has dictated that you must walk onto that field today …
Startups, just aren’t like that.
At a startup when the odds are hopelessly against you. You don’t double down, you figure out how to change the rules. You do something new. You change your approach, you change your messaging, maybe you pivot the whole company to a new product and set off in an entirely different direction.
But before you can do that, before you can even consider doing that, you need to accept that what you are doing now isn’t working. That your current strategy is a failure. And not a glorious failure either, but a simple ordinary failure.
And that. That is hard.
Over the last seven years or so, Japanese startup founders as a whole have moved from beginners to world-class operators. From ideation to pitching to productization to marketing, Japanese startup founders are some of the best in the world.
But the pivot? That’s still hard. Japanese startups are still often avoiding the pivot and opting for the glorious failure.
I mean, it’s definitely getting better, and we’ll talk about possible solutions in a bit, but I’ve seen this dynamic play out at a number of startups. Including some that I’ve been pretty close to.
When times are hard, the instinct is to pull together and work harder. For a member of the team, even the founder, especially the founder, to stand up and say “We need to put aside our plans, our pride, and our priorities and try something new.”?
That very often feels like a dismissal, even a betrayal, of all the hard work that everyone has done so far. And after all, if the founder admits that his plans have failed, why should the team trust him now?
No, it’s usually much easier to insist that we have the right plan and just need to work harder. It takes a particularly skilled founder to pull off a pivot in Japan.
But it does happen.
Pre-revenue and before promises have been made to customers, Japanese startups find it easier to pivot. In fact, startups are releasing products earlier, getting feedback faster, and adapting to that feedback more flexibly than they have in the past. Early on, there is more and more experimentation around product-market fit.
The real danger, however, seems to be when a strategy that has been working well, suddenly stops working. When strong sales growth stops or even begins to drop.
This is a difficult time for any startup. It requires the team to take a hard and honest look at all of the assumptions they have made up until this point.
Unfortunately, at this point a kind of tunnel vision often takes hold, and the focus becomes doubling down on what had once worked. New projects and new ideas get pushed back to “phase two” and all resources are poured into doing the same thing, but harder and with longer hours.
I’ve never once seen a startup pull out of this. If you have, drop me an email. I would love to have some counterexamples, but every time I’ve seen a startup start doubling down like this, it has ended in a glorious failure.
And it really shouldn’t be this way.
Sure, the new ideas being suggested may not save your startup, but doubling down has a 100% failure rate. It’s an objectively bad decision, and we need to start viewing glorious failures as being every bit as bad, or maybe even worse, than ordinary failures.
So, how do we fix this?
I normally don’t finish a script until I have some solid and concrete solutions to offer, but the coronavirus has forced my hand and this is a particularly difficult problem.
Allocating a certain percentage of budget early on to experimental marketing and development efforts can help, but those commitments are often tossed out as soon as the tunnel vision sets in and the march to a glorious failure begins.
This is a problem that can only be soled by example. By role models. As more and more Japanese founders pivot successfully, the more successful case studies we will have, and the glorious failure will start to be seen for what it really is, a missed opportunity, and a simple failure of leadership.
And hey, being afraid of failure is fine. The whole Silicon Valley “Fail fast. Fail forward.” nonsense is a bunch of macho bullshit. Failure hurts. It’s supposed to. If failure doesn’t hurt, then your heart wasn’t really in it.
There is no need to celebrate failure, only a need to learn from it.
The founders who succeed are not the ones who are not afraid to fail, but those who acknowledge the fear, but who do it anyway.
If you’d like to talk more about glorious failures, or hey if you’ve got an example of a Japanese startup that turned itself around by doubling down, I’d love to hear from you. So come by Disrupting japan.com /show163 and let’s talk about it. And you have a topic you’d like me to cover during Tokyo’s official, unofficial lockdown, please let me know.
If you get the chance, please give us a review in iTunes or Stitcher or your podcast platform of choice. It’s really a great way to get the word out and let more people know about some of the cool stuff going on in Japanese startups
But most of all, thanks for listening, and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups an innovation know about the show.
I’m Tim Romero, and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.