Daniel Shields

Post modern views on Failure

October 21, 2019

#academic #startups

The following is an excerpt from my academic journal.
MA Entrepreneurship, Falmouth University, 2019.


As I attempt to understand failure and its meaning, this work is a postmodern discourse on the subject. Postmodernism itself is convoluted, but one of its concerns is that we need to re-evaluate the world and deconstruct our meaning of it. For instance, the concern for information technology and its implications for society, as these modern technologies affect our understanding of reality and even by their nature allow us to think in more abstract terms, which again impacts on our understanding and even own identity (Ward, 2003).

Post Modern Views

While postmodernism is over two centuries old, its philosophy holds true because the recent development of cybernetics and artificial intelligence radically alters our perception of consciousness and our place in the universe, even more so than a mechanical invention like the steam engine, or a passive medium such as the television which has come to represent postmodernism.

Postmodern also concerns itself with the end of our pursual for absolute truth, in which our story of reality starts to lose absolute meaning and instead becomes constructed from signs and symbols, such as the study of simulation and simulacrum by Jean Baudrillard. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how digital media and the targeted manipulation of our social media can be used to swing political elections, showing we truly are living in a post-truth age where simulacrum has more power than facts and the integrity of truth. This has become even more apparent now that artificial intelligence has enabled the creation of deep fake media, in which an entire television segment such as a political discourse could be artificially constructed with near real detail (Parkin, 2019).

Therefore, we also need to question our reference point for failure, and what defines it. If everything is a simulacrum without any reference to real life, then what cultural references does failure have? Should we derive that from our media? Perhaps the tales of tragedy from antiquity like Caligula and Macbeth, or perhaps strictly in business terms where failure is a loss of resources and capital.

As business is primarily leader driven, the archetype of tragedy is often emphasized in the media when it comes to the corporate world, like Howard Huges whose downfall came from neurosis, or even fictionalized stories such as The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone took on the role of Godfather to protect his family but his success in business eventually lead to the emotional separation from his wife and eventual death of his daughter. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, how much should we associate a business failure with a personal failure, especially when we know that most start-ups fail, and the lifetime of many businesses is less than 50 years - for example, less than 12% of Fortune 500 companies from 1955 remain in the listing for 2017 (Perry, 2017) and the success rate for start-ups is less than 10% (Marmer et al., 2011).

On the topic of crisis or black swan events as a type of failure that may affect business such as an external force of nature, or an internal HR scandal for example. Peter Drucker says: “The most important task of an organization’s leader is to anticipate crisis. Perhaps not to avert it, but to anticipate it.” Then the job is either to prevent if possible or prepare for its arrival, as such the type of failure is related to not investing correctly in good people and good policies—company culture—as well as not being prepared for an unforeseen disaster. The failure by a person in leadership may be in not identifying the precursors of crisis in their organisation if such exist, or not having a contingency plan in place when crisis does occur, and of building an organisation with enough trust to survive the difficult times. (Starr, 2011) In such cases, the failure of a leader to be prepared for inevitable failure can certainly be a personal failure.

Drucker offers some excellent advice, while many failures are the result of greed or incompetence, failure should be a symptom of opportunity, such as underlying change in the market, an incongruency which shows new market needs and values (Drucker, 2015, p. 41). If business leaders attempt to keep the company safe by not innovating and taking risks, that may itself result in the business failure to not adapt to the changing market.

Failure is not predictable because we have cause and effect separated in time, we can’t predict the future and we can’t use the past as a guide – as the rate of innovation means that nothing is certain (in business markets), multiple factors that interact over time create a dynamic complexity. (Sastry and Penn, 2014, p. 23).

The expression of post-modern space has been explored in its architecture, which has buildings are described as a microcosm of the larger city, and a sensory and yet superficial hyperspace environment, which makes one feel as if you have lost your sense of perspective and place. The digital space mirrors these aspects and the global telecommunication networks, which warps our continental and cultural boundaries, is so vast and complex that it’s impossible for our minds to grasp the matrix they create in physical and virtual space. (Ward, 2003, p. 186-193) The Internet provides businesses a near instantaneous feedback into user activity, which allows us to track effects. Yet the downside is that this virtual space is so complex and all-encompassing that learning from failure is no simple task, and the distance between cause and effect needs to be tracked across multiple physical and digital realms, where the cause may be more difficult to detect if it is not linearly linked to its effect across this hyperspace realm.

When it comes to failure relating to time, Sutherland regards Time as the ultimate limiting factor of human endeavour, in business this failure to learn early and get feedback means that a business could spend years working on a product that the market might not want, or even one that the market needs now but finds irrelevant when it’s finally delivered – which would be a business failure because of the capital invested. (Sutherland, 2015, p. 73)

Drucker also discusses the common belief about the nature of high-tech innovation and that the casualty rate is higher and the chances of survival seem quite low, while the potential rewards are significantly higher. In these cases, the monetary benefit of success of innovation is large enough to offset the risk (especially when the correct course of action is innovation rather than optimisation) and can therefore be option with the least risk. Rather, using Bell Labs and IBM as examples, he states high-tech Entrepreneurship is risky mainly because so few who attempt it follow the well-known rules and methodology (Drucker, 2015, p. 25).

Some closing thoughts from my previous journal: “it’s a mistake to tolerate all failure, instead only celebrate learning—not failure, only if that gained knowledge can be applied to future designs. (Furr, et al., 2019)”