Don't Fail Fast.

Humans love catch-phrases. From sports (“It was a game of two-halves.”) to religion (“Let go and let God.”), we tend to cling to pithy statements that have an delightful sound, capture a sentiment and can be re-used safely.

Business books are a breeding ground of these idioms and buzzwords - from ‘creating synergy’ to ‘outside-the-box’ thinking. When a ‘thought leader’ drops one of these phrases into their blog or presentation - we nod confidently, and re-assure ourselves that we are ‘on the same page’ as them.

One phrase in particular has received a lot of air-time in the past seven years - ‘fail fast.’ We read about the need to fail fast, to adapt, trial-and-error - all in the pursuit of innovation.



And yet - I think ‘fail fast’ is not the best advice for any business seeking to develop their innovation capabilities - for the following three reasons.

1. Language Matters.

Quick - what comes to mind when you think of the word ‘failure’?

I think of Team New Zealand blowing an 8-1 lead in the 2013 America’s Cup. I think of myself as a six year old - unable to understand how subtraction works. I think of my MacBook Pro finally giving up the ghost and not turning on.

Each of these are failures - and the emotions they conjure up are not especially pleasant ones.

With the America’s Cup - I was in disbelief. As a six year-old, I was in tears. With my laptop - I was angry. 

Neither of these states are great for business, creation or innovation.

Social scientists and psychologists have studied cognitive priming since the 1970s - looking at how exposure to one stimulus might change our performance in another arena. Their research has been fascinating - exploring how participants exposed to elderly-related words would walk slower, or people primed with ‘helpful’ words were more likely to assist the researcher in tidying up after the interview.

Although some of the findings are contested - research in the creativity space has hinted at how exposure to brands related to innovation (such as Apple), and to creative-words, increases the participant’s score on creativity tests.

The word ‘failure’ does not excite people. It does not induce possibility thinking, nor does it inspire people to take risks. Instead - it leads to avoidance thinking - “What can I do to not fail?”

This is a particularly strong notion in New Zealand - where we have a culture that is hesitant to take risks that may lead to failure. Dr Smita Singh, from AUT, has researched entrepreneurial failure in New Zealand, concluding that, “(New Zealand) entrepreneurs have often tended to perceive failure in a highly personalised way.” - seeing their business failures as personal failures. 

If you are building a culture of innovation within your organisation - failure would be a word to re-frame, rather than re-use. Fail fast fails to achieve this.

2. Failing Isn’t The Goal.

One of the great truisms of project management is to begin with the end in mind. Working backwards from this goal allows us to plan, strategise and adopt as required.

The goal of innovation is not to fail-fast. 

The goal of innovation is business success and organisational learning.

If our innovation practice is defined by ‘fail fast’ - we will not persevere for success, but accept failure as the likely end-goal. We will be happy with any result - as long as we can frame it as a ‘fast-fail.’

Mark Payne, founded of design-consultancy Fahrenheit 212, challenges the acceptance of high-failure rates in innovation, saying, “The biggest driver of project success rates, it seems, is the clarity of strategic focus.”

When your focus is on ‘fail-fast’ - this is not clear, nor is it strategic. This reinforces the notion that innovation is inherently unknown and risky - and that failure is the likely outcome.

3. Singular vs. Multiple.

I can remember playing football at secondary school, and being chosen to take a penalty in the dying moments of the game.

I put the ball on the penalty spot and stepped back. I took a deep breath - and rushed in, kicking the ball firmly - and straight at the goal-keeper. He didn’t have to move.

Afterwards, my teammates and coaches asked me - “What happened?”

I gave them the answer - “I hadn’t decided where to aim.”

That was true - and they were satisfied. But in reality - there were multiple reasons I’d failed in that moment.

I was tired. I changed my mind about where to aim at the last second. I didn’t plant my left foot well. I was thinking about the audience watching the game. I was thinking about where to run if the goalkeeper parried the shot. I was thinking about how to act if it went in. I was hoping to impress the girl on the sidelines. I’d missed penalties high and right in training during the week.

Each of these contributed to my failure at the penalty.

However, when we fail - and are asked to give a post-mortem of our performance - we often identify only one reason that we failed. 

And people are happy with that.

Compare that to when you ask someone what they learnt from a podcast, book or lecture.

Instead of one simple answer - you receive a range of learnings, with insights, lessons-building-on-lessons, and engagement with the findings.

Which would you prefer? Cultivating a culture that looks for one reason to explain a failure - or a culture that seeks to learn as part of the every-day experience?

Peter Thiel (PayPal creator, and tech billionaire) takes a similar perspective on failure, saying, “I think people actually do not learn very much from failure. I think it ends up being quite damaging and demoralising to people in the long run.”

Don’t Fail Fast - Learn Up

Perhaps one of my biggest frustration with “Fail Fast” is this - I see plenty of organisations saying it, but very few who actually do it.

Executives will nod at the concept, but frown at any employee who is taking a risk that may lead to failure. Everything must be mitigated and planned - leading to a culture that is - at best - “Fail Slow.”

Instead, I encourage organisations to “Learn and Win.” More than a simple change in language, this phrase reflects:

  • A focus on learning. The goal is not failure - but is on learning for the individual and organisation. New knowledge and knowledge gaps will be discovered - and progress will be achieved.
  • A focus on winning. The goal is not speed - but success. The win may be micro - an incremental advance - or macro - a transformation for the business. It will be tough - winning always is. But it will be a win for the company.

Fail Fast or Learn & Win. Which would you prefer?