‘Fail fast, fail often’ may be the stupidest business mantra of all time

Originally published on March 13, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-growth/day-to-day/fail-fast-fail-often-may-be-the-stupidest-business-mantra-of-all-time/article23407206/

Who in his or her right mind would build a philosophy around failure? Let’s be real: there are few certainties in business. But I’m pretty sure that if you become too proficient at failure, you’re going to go bankrupt.

‘Fail fast, fail often’ is cited by many startups and innovators as both the pathway and attitude that will lead organizations to sustained success. Business failure is apparently a good thing, as long as it teaches you a lesson.

But I’m not buying it and neither should you. Say it out loud. I’ve been in many meetings where the group leader cites the mantra, “fail fast, fail often.” Consistently, however, they choke by the third f-word. Maybe it’s too much alliteration – but I think it’s something more.

In a column entitled ‘Why Silicon Valley’s ’Fail Fast’ Mantra Is Just Hype,’ leadership expert Rob Ashgar quotes one tech entrepreneur in frank terms: “Many people here do talk about embracing failure, but that’s usually just hype… many of them fear any kind of failure, and the pressure to succeed is so intense that some new businesses instead find themselves looking for shortcuts.”

I understand the meaning of fail fast. We can’t have people afraid to try new things because they might fail. And if you don’t try you’ll never succeed. But instead of embracing the negative, why not redefine the positive? Our goal is to win. So let’s redefine the goal so that we figure out how to succeed, not fail.

Why focus on the negative? A pro baseball player who hits the ball three times out of ten and retires with a .300 lifetime batting average is bound for the Hall of Fame. No one cares that he failed to get a hit seven times out of ten! In the new book Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future, authors Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer provide fodder for rethinking our approach. “In the face of an unknown future, entrepreneurs act,” they write.

“More specifically, they:

  • Take a small, smart step
  • Pause to see what they learned by doing so; and
  • Build that learning in to what they do next.”

Entrepreneurs try, learn and refine. It’s not about failing fast or slow, it’s about learning how to win.

Clearly we need a new mantra. I propose: “Succeed fast, adjust or move on.”

Isn’t that what innovation’s all about? Understanding whether or not a new idea, product, service or process has legs? The faster we figure that out, the sooner we can decide to stay the course, make corrections, or pull the plug.

Notice that this mantra still embraces the word “fast.” Increasingly, we live in a world where businesses – both private and publicly-traded – are expected to perform for the short term.

Shareholders judge firms by their quarterly results; customers want to know why the newest product update is two days late. This high-speed scrutiny has shortened the time in which new business ideas must prove themselves. This means you must constantly be changing up your swing in order to get maximum whacks at the ball before your half of the inning is over.

In our new mantra, the phrase “succeed fast” is code for “know whether your business idea is going to succeed before anyone else does.” And really, that’s as it should be. Before you launch a new product or service, you study the market, do your product research, and anticipate where the potential challenges will come from. Given your comprehensive knowledge about your project, you can react to early market indicators make dispassionate decisions about whether to refine or pull the plug.

Of course, the “dispassionate” part is never easy. Every entrepreneur needs to fall a little bit in love with his or her idea. It’s part of the process. But just as investors often hold on to a falling stock too long, entrepreneurs can also sink too much time, energy and money into a doomed concept. That’s why doing research, modelling and making continuous refinements are so important. If you don’t have a predetermined success metric in place before you start, the temptation will be to simply hope and pray that better results are around the corner.

The ‘ready, fire, aim’ crowd may think that all of this discussion of the words “fail fast” versus “succeed fast” is just semantics. But I believe this debate is real, and the outcome crucial. For the record, I’m not much of a karma guy, but I have a fundamental belief that you usually get what you aim for. And I’m sure as heck not aiming to “fail often.”

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