business today

‘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:

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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What do eBay, Coke, Proctor & Gamble, GE, Whirlpool and 3M have in Common?


Recently these companies, and others, participated in the Unleashing Innovation Summit in NYC which I had the pleasure of attending.  There were organizations from around the globe that came together to focus on innovation with an emphasis on people and culture.  It was great to see innovation thought leaders discussing this very critical issue and have them reinforce what I have believed and practiced for over 15 years.  There was lots of sharing of experience on what worked and what didn’t when adopting an innovation focused culture.

So What’s Working…

From the group of participants it appears that companies are doing a good job at identifying the opportunities to address and are managing through the process of innovation rather well.  In their approach, large companies are striving to emulate small company’s entrepreneurism.  Companies are forming non-traditional partnerships and looking within their organization to their employees for solutions to improve the customer experience.  As an example we heard first hand about the success and challenges overcome in the design and launch of Coke Freestyle.  From the experience I have had leading change initiatives, leaders traditionally find the process improvement portion to be the easier part, mastering it more quickly.  This appears to hold true in the evolution of the adoption of innovation.

Today’s Challenges…

From case studies, fireside chats and storytelling we learned that the challenge of ingraining innovation into the culture was a difficult one facing many companies.  Also, the majority of companies are still grappling with the vulnerability of risk.  While we all understand the benefits of “fail, fail fast and fail often” it is still difficult to successfully make that part of an organization’s culture.  A culture where employees are not punished for making mistakes appears to still be a rarity.  Some of the successful cultural initiatives to overcome this we heard about included Innovation Day at United Health Group, Viz Kitchen from eBay and the BASF Cultural Ambassador program as forums to involve employees and even in some cases customers in the innovation process.

As a change leader I’ve found that fully delivering a cultural change takes effort and time.  The effort put forth in ensuring all of the moving parts align can be daunting but pays big dividends.  And affording the needed time to not only do it right the first time but in allowing employees to adapt and adjust is not something you can fast forward through – there just aren’t any short cuts to quality change.

The Future…

For me, the signs are clearer now than ever.  Organizations are looking within for ways to better delight customers, engage employees and impact their bottom line.  For companies wanting to do this through innovation the biggest challenge appears to be fostering a culture of innovation.  For us innovative change agents, our time has come!

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Isn’t the Handshake the Most Important Part of a Business Relationship?

Business Relationships

I was reading through one of my favourite business magazines last week when I happened upon an ad from GoToMeeting.  The headline read, “The Only Thing Missing is a Handshake”.  Now, I get the point that they are making as they promote video conferencing as an “extraordinarily powerful way to collaborate face to face in high-definition video”.  I get it.  I am a brand builder. I embrace new technology with zest as it helps to facilitate the relationships that underpin brand. In fact, I am a big fan of GoToMeeting as it enables me to have more frequent collaboration with people spread far afield.

But, the headline also nagged at me about what has been lost in business today, the handshake.  It used to mean something.  It was the signal of agreement of between people — seller and buyer.  And I believe that its importance is belong lost on the new generation of business leaders.  Business is about people, not pixels.  It’s about developing products and services that delight the people who consume them.  As a brand builder, I have always stressed human interaction within my companies.  I believe in regular internal meetings and maximum allowable intervals between face-to-face meetings with our clients.

I am also a big believer in Tony Hsieh of Zappos’ zeal for the notion of serendipity; the idea of the “happy accident” that comes about as a result of human interaction.

So, by all means, embrace technology, but remember, the simplest and most extraordinarily powerful tool in business is the shake of a hand.

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