Entrepreneurs, investors, and executives have all fallen in love with the “fail fast” motif. It’s a simple concept: Make your mistakes early in the game whilst it is easy to make changes to avoid digging out of a big hole. Sounds very logical. I am calling this a myth because the logic works if two other components are also sequentially included. Failing fast only works if (1) there’s an acceptance to the failure (2) a subsequent process to learn, and change quickly.
In most organizations, failure has consequences. There can be damage to reputation, relationships and role or compensation. So if there is not a formal and widely-accepted ‘fail fast’ culture, then people simply are not going to take on endeavors where the failure is worth the risk or the reward. The higher likelihood is that risk-takers are likely to sandbag their creativity with layup projects, and non-risk-takers will sit it out altogether.
Once a failure is incurred, there has to be a formal and consistent enterprise-wide process to capture the essence of ‘fail fast’ – which is to aggressively and objectively learn from the failure. Having a holistic autopsy from a diverse stakeholder perspective is essential to not have to fail-fast again! There then has to be a change process where these lessons are quickly adopted to improve the endeavor. Leaders that shout ‘fail fast’ at every innovation or leadership session should be challenged on these two additional components. If you are leader, you must come up with a credible response.
This week, think about what failure really means in your organization. Think of examples where it was handled the right way (as described above) and the wrong way. What category (right or wrong) do you have more examples of? Answer truthfully. Done correctly, failure is without doubt one of the best institutionalized cultural attributes you can install as almost all progress start with someone or something failing somewhere.