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Stop Failing Fast in Innovation


In innovation the mantra "fail fast" is often used to explain that people should quickly try out ideas and then learn from the things that fail to develop new products and services. Some people challenged the need for failure and have come up with alternative approaches for effective innovation.

Dan McClure wrote the blog post why the "Fail Fast" philosophy doesn’t work in which he stated:

Established organizations don’t get to make an unlimited number of bets on the marketplace. At some point there is a need to commit resources at an enterprise scale.

According to McClure doing innovation in an enterprise can be challenging due to scale, complexity and stakeholder involvement:

[An established enterprise] face[s] active pressure from disruptive competitors and must operate at scale. Innovations that matter will almost certainly be complex and multi-dimensional. There is still a real need to validate the product-market fit of any new proposal, but that challenge sits alongside the need to build innovations that engage many different stakeholders inside and outside the organization.

He suggest to use the mantra "Learn Quickly and Think Well" for innovation in enterprises:

With each hypothesis tested, extract wisdom. What went wrong? What new things are know about the world? How can this knowledge be used more effectively by us than by anyone else?

Speed matters, but the organizations that excel will be those with teams who get the greatest insight from their testing investment and then design the best pivot toward greater value. It will be the organizations, teams, and individuals who go beyond simply failing fast and who master the art of Learning Quickly and Thinking Well.

In the article why you need to stop trying to ’Fail Fast’ on Entrepreneur Jeffrey Hayzlett explains that you should plan and act for business success in stead of failure:

Simply put, failure has become too much of a badge of honor in this country. I’m never going into a situation thinking I’m going to fail no matter how risky or seemingly impossible it is. There’s always a win-win scenario that doesn’t involve hurting anyone if that’s what you want to do.

According to Hayzlett we have to look for success, celebrate it and use it to get better and grow:

I believe we’re making so much of our mistakes and thinking of failure as the new black that we’re getting bad at celebrating actual success. And isn’t that what we’re really talking about here: success? (...) Maybe the reason we don’t celebrate success enough is because we think and act small; the successes aren’t much to celebrate. That’s the real danger here: allowing the voices in our heads to creep in again and keep us from thinking and acting big.

Patrick Gray wrote the TechRepublic article Fast failure: The secret to fostering more IT innovation than your competitors. He describes why we need to stop when things go wrong and focus on learning.

As soon as an effort has failed to the point that reasonable course corrections cannot turn things around, it’s time to call a halt, and lead an analysis of what went wrong. Objectively investigate whether environmental factors were misjudged, incorrect resources were assigned, or technologies deployed that were not up to the task.

He explains why it’s important to analyse a failure and assure that actions are taken:

At all times during this investigation, regard the failure and its analysis as efforts to move forward, rather than efforts to assign blame or fight old battles. If an individual was unable to perform his or her assigned tasks, look for a new role for that person, or determine how their role and support structure can be changed to ensure success. Develop recommendations for how to modify the effort to ultimately achieve your objective that are concrete, actionable, and measurable, and immediately begin to implement the recommendations as you relaunch an effort to achieve your ultimate objective. Use failure to learn how to improve, implement what you learn, and then move forward.

In the blog post three key ingredients to learning from failure Jennifer Garvey Berger explores what it takes to learn from failure. He mentions time, sense of purpose and leadership as the main things that give people the strength to learn and continue in innovation:

Time: (...) It takes time to metabolize a failure into a learning experience.

Sense of purpose. (...) With your eye on that larger purpose, each failure becomes a step toward a bigger success.

Leadership. (...) the reaction of their leader (or a mentor or a coach) to the failure had a massive impact on whether or not the failure could be metabolized into learning and the courage to try again.

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Community comments

  • failure is overrated

    by Jeff Hain,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I've seen some people create great things and never "fail", other than having done some perfectible decisions here and there.

    On the other hand, I've also seen a lot of people repeatedly miserably fail at everything they've tried. Often they just seem not to care, they understand all your remarks about what they did wrong but they do it again.

    The most important might be to have people who take care of what they are doing, and of those who will use it, and if they fail in some way they will naturally take care of how not to fail again in that way.

    Besides, for an outsider this whole discussion might look a bit surreal.
    Celebrating failure...

    Maybe that's how we got there:

    1) People apply conservative failure averse processes to the mindfacturing of new things, which clearly doesn't work.
    -> To make up for that, say that we must allow for failure.

    2) Now people fail complacently, oh dear!
    -> To make up for that, say that OK we can fail, but fast, not staying in the ditch.

    3) Now people fail complacently and frenetically, oh dear!
    -> To make up for that, say that OK we can fail, OK it must be fast, but that then one must learn from it.

    4) What next? Maybe a debate over what learning means.

  • Re: failure is overrated

    by Ben Linders,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Thanks Jeff for your reflections on the topic of failure. I like the 4 "stages" that you mention.

    My idea on this is that sometimes failure helps you to learn and get better. But there are better ways to get better, like experimenting, learning from things that went well, etc.

    What's your view on this? What your number 4???

  • Re: failure is overrated

    by Jeff Hain,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hi Ben.

    I think we agree, it's more of a terminology question.

    "Failure" sounds much like someone committing to something and not meeting his own expectations about himself, which is not supposed to happen too often.

    I find it confusing to use that word when talking about trying new things and not figuring them out on first try, which is totally normal.
    Maybe we should just stick to experiments instead of failures.

    Someone who worked on rocket like things told me every time they blew up they learned a lot of things (maybe like when in software finding a bug puts us on track of more bugs), but when everything looked fine the engineers felt the launch was a bit of a waste.

    That said, I agree that true failure also helps, the brain making sure things get remembered better when pain is associated with them :)

  • Re: failure is overrated

    by Ben Linders,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Hi Jeff,

    Indeed, when things go really wrong, people tend to remember it better. I'd wish that people also remember stuff that went well :-)

    One alternative that I didn't mention yet are safe-to-fail experiments. The main purpose is to learn, both when things go well or when not, since it proves or disproves our hypothesis. When it goes wrong, the damage is limited however.


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