The Best Entrepreneurs Know When to Lose Control
Early in my career, when I was working as a developer for a New York media company, I had a colleague who was constantly worried about getting canned. To be fair, these were turbulent times — turnover was high and company-wide restructuring was frequent — so his worries weren’t entirely misplaced.
Still, the way he coped was by spending all his energy completing every task flawlessly, consequential or not. He was so consumed with preventing anything bad from happening that he had no energy left for the reason he pursed that line of work in the first place: Following creative hunches and exploring ideas outside of the box.
My old colleague is hardly the first person to react to uncertainty this way. Many of us have a tendency to worry about the future, and as a result, we avoid allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. It makes sense: self-preservation is a natural instinct. That’s why we buy home security systems and squirrel away money for rainy days.
But planning away negative outcomes is a fruitless endeavor. And it might even hurt our businesses.
Control is an illusion
There’s a reason why many couples choose to have destination weddings in the Caribbean: a beach sunset is a beautiful backdrop. But really, they’re hedging their bets for great weather. Most of the time it works out, but sometimes the sky darkens and it rains on your wedding day.
Like bad weather or in-laws getting along, there will always be things in life that we can’t control.
Pain is part of the human experience, and it would be naïve to think we can escape it. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to put it off as long as possible. Somehow, that feels more comfortable than acknowledging the reality that life is messy and often unpredictable.
The same goes for running a business — especially in today’s world, where digital platforms are the dominant business model and their trajectories are largely unpredictable. The idea that we could somehow ensure only positive outcomes is naïve at best and damaging at worst.
Writing for Forbes, Kumar Mehta, author of The Innovation Biome, explains:
“Even the most innovative companies fail more often than they succeed. Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft — companies widely regarded as the most innovative companies in the world — have had more failures than successes, more misses than hits. But the most innovative companies have a culture where they learn from failure, not just celebrate it.”
If we focus entirely on trying to predict the future — working in a reactive mode — we might fail to keep up with the present. And the ability to relinquish some control means getting comfortable with vulnerability.
With vulnerability comes loyalty
Merriam Webster defines vulnerable as “open to attack or damage.” On a personal level, that means letting down our guard and showing who we are, weaknesses and all. On an organizational level, vulnerability means accepting the possibility of failure — or, in other words, taking risks.
Taking off your workplace armor can open you up to deeper connections with colleagues. Harvard Business Review shared a telling example of this kind of vulnerability. Years ago, Hubbl founder Archana Patchirajan called a staff meeting to announce that she had to let everyone go because her startup had run out of funds. Though they could have easily found work elsewhere, her employees refused to leave, offering instead to work for significantly less.
The story has a happy ending — Hubbl was acquired a few years later for $14 million. But the story's real lesson was why the staff chose to stay. HBR explained: “Archana’s relationship with her employees is deeper than that of the usual employer-employee relationship. Simply put, she is vulnerable and authentic with them.”
When we let our guard down, we can really let people in, and that’s the most powerful way to inspire loyalty and engagement among colleagues. Work can be a cold place, so a little vulnerability can go a long way.
Vulnerability fosters risk-taking
Higher levels of vulnerability — embracing risk and accepting the possibility of failure — sets the stage for creativity, something that the most innovative and prolific companies understand. Consider Coca Cola Co. In 1985, the beverage company release a reformulated version of its beloved soft drink, and was met with some serious backlash. Coca-Cola quickly switched back to its original formula, but the failure rippled through the company culture, ushering in a long period of cautiousness.
But recently, Coca-Cola's new CEO James Quincey has acknowledged that the company has fallen into a rut of complacency. He's urged managers to move beyond their fear of failure, saying, “If we’re not making mistakes,” he insisted, “we’re not trying hard enough.”
Likewise, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose business was built by leaning into risk, has commented:
“If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments. And if they’re experiments, you don’t know ahead of time if they’re going to work. Experiments are by their very nature prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”
Sometimes it’s impossible to predict how a product will be received. It was impossible to foresee that Google Glass would tank but Amazon’s Alexa would become a household name, or to know whether longtime customers will enjoy your new beverage. One thing’s for sure: You can’t control a user’s subjective experience. But you can commit to learning from flubs and focusing on factors within your command.
Focusing on what we can control
Of the myriad things that we cannot control, one thing that we can is our response in the face of negative outcomes. Not only does this approach allow us to let go and focus on the present, but it makes failures into teachable moments.
At my company JotForm, I encourage employees to take risks and investigate new ideas, no matter how seemingly far fetched. We even carve out dedicated time for that kind of exploration. The only caveat is that if and when we do make a mistake, we take a moment to step back and figure out the “why.” Maybe customers don’t like a product update, or maybe they simply prefer a choice.
As long as we’re reflecting, listening and pushing ourselves to new creative heights, it's all worth it.
There are many ways to encourage letting go, from establishing failure awards that celebrate projects that went awry, to openly disclosing your own missteps and what you learned from them. Once you create a culture that embraces failure, you might be surprised by how much your business grows.