Afraid To Fail

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Most companies do know what to do. They attend the same seminars and conferences as we do. They read the same content. They’re clued in that their industry is going through a huge shift, and they know that technology and the ability to market and communicate what they do to their target market has also shifted to places like the online space.

So, what gives?

Many people travel to different parts of the world only to report back how different things are. Whether it’s the cultural differences, the type of work being done or how companies "over there" connect with consumers. They’re quick to judge if a foreign country is lagging behind or jetting forward compared to where they are based. The curiosity of understanding "why" this is, is understandable. This week was a complete and total whirlwind in terms of business travel for me. From Monday to Friday, I was in Quebec City, Frankfurt, Stockholm and Copenhagen. During these jaunts I met with professional grocers, direct marketers and spoke at an Internet marketing conference that featured a slew of participating industries (including banks and major publishers). Upon reflection, they are all expressing the same concerns about their industries. There is no difference. The feedback is always the same when it comes to Digital Marketing: "we know we need to do this, we need to be doing more of this, and we should be putting more budget against this."

Here is one of the universal truths I uncovered on this trip: companies are afraid to fail.

Most of the reasons can be dumped into two buckets:

  1. Individuals: these people have been doing things for so long and are so set in their ways that anything new seems risky. Even if it’s as obvious as buying pay-per-click search engine advertising for the main keywords potential customers are probably typing into the search engines as you read this. They’re afraid that if they shift, experiment and try something new, it might be used against them when it comes to review time.
  2. Corporate culture: this is where you have the individuals who understand that a change is happening and they are willing to take the chance and experiment beyond what the company has done to date, but the corporate culture does not allow them to really go for it. Yes, these are the people who are loving all of the new and amazing digital marketing opportunities in front of them, but the IT department blocks them from YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the the like.

Fear is a very real thing.

A way’s back I used to do personal defense training with a very well-know individual in the close-quarter combatives space (Tony Blauer). A lot of what Tony does is about explaining to people fear and how to manage it in very high stress scenarios (like when your life is in physical danger). Through the years and through his training, I came to understand that the physical aspect of the fight (being able to "handle yourself") is only about 10% of it. 90% of a fight is psychological. Tony had a great acronym for "fear":

F.E.A.R. – False Expectations Appearing Real.

Bottom line, individuals and companies can talk themselves into (and out of) any belief system. In most cases, the fear is not real. It’s something we’ve made up, and the only way to push forward is to know that more often than not, there’s nothing really there to be that fearful about.

It’s time for marketers to stop having these false expectations and start getting on with the business of embracing, doing and experimenting with all of these channels.

What are you afraid of?


  1. I have a background in psychotherapy, and am a market researcher, and I have to disagree with you here. Your last question is “what are you afraid of”? Some answers could be “BEING FIRED”, “LETTING MY FAMILY DOWN”, “LOOKING FOOLISH”, “PISSING OFF THE BOSS”.
    The fact is, these fears ARE real, and they do stop innovation in its tracks. I equate corporate innovation and experimentation to personal growth. What I think it is time for consultants to do is to acknowledge these fears as REAL and spend time working through them with clients, both on an individual and corporate culture level.
    If you want to get companies to take action on social media, try saying “OK – we’re going to spend three weeks doing nothing but managing and focusing on these fears so that once everyone understands each other’s issues, we’ll all be on the same page to move forward.” This simple approach addresses the fear, and gives a timeline for action.
    If you say “What are you afraid of”, and attempt to sweep the fear under the rug by telling them to “stop having these false expectations”, you’re throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Not only does the fear get swept under the rug, but so does any hope of innovation – and then fear wins the day.

  2. It is risk aversion to a large degree. People tend to exaggerate in their imaginations the actual risk to themselves or the company they are working for.
    When you really examine the WORST case scenario realistically – invariably there is a back-out plan or someway in which the experience could be salvaged as a “learning experience”.
    What are YOU willing to risk? If you think your job may be on the line if you make a bad bold, visionary decision (and you just had a child with your spouse and bought a house!), hello conservatism!
    Of course if you want to evaluate all the impacts you should be considering opportunity costs too. What is the price of playing it too safe all the time? Being surpassed by bolder competing work colleagues, or vendors or partners etc. Being mediocre in all things is a pretty dull existence in my opinion (but many are scared to try anything too adventurous).
    The only way to win in a game like poker (in tournaments anyway) is to bet (risk) all your chips from time to time on hands you believe in. You will either double up and eliminate your competition or lose all your chips. But there is no other way to win.

  3. John Maynard Keynes wrote, “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.
    not much has changed since then it would seem

  4. Great post! I’m afraid there’s no turning back!
    Organizations and people leading organizations should take advantage of the great oportunities Internet opens for their business.
    If they are still finding it difficult to make the switch to web, sooner ir later they will find themselves so far behind their competitors that catching up will be very hard and fear will be much more difficult to beat.

  5. Great post and comments. I agree with Brian (1st comment above) that fears are real and need to be addressed, and I believe that is the point of Mitch’s thoughts. What is really standing in the way of innovation most times is fear, not resources, not abilities. Fear exists at both the individual and corporate (cultural level). Let’s not conduct another brainstorming class — let’s speak candidly and directly about our fears. Then, perhaps we can start working together to do great things because we feel comfortable — as Jim Estill states — failing often, failing fast and failing cheap.

  6. Doug, thanks for clarifying my points. There was a reason I had one line in bold in the post that said, “fear is a very real thing.” The point is that once you discuss, push through and clarify (as you so rightfully stated Brian), more often than not we do realize that fear is simply a “false expectation appearing real.” If we all give in to our fears without trying to overcome them, then all is lost.

  7. Hey Mitch –
    I did notice the significance of the bolded “fear is a very real thing” – and agreed – we need to work through our fears.

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