Fast Failing, Succeeding Faster
Updated: Feb 16
The more you experiment, the more mistakes and outright failures you're going to encounter. Believe it or not, this is actually a good thing--if you want to move the needle in your business, you've got to take risks. You've got to fail faster--and fail better. These fast failures will help you iterate faster, make more attempts, collect more data, and ultimately succeed faster.
Why Fast Fail?
This is a tough question to answer because no one wants to fail. We are taught that failure is bad. When we experience failure, it hurts. At one point or another in our lives we have felt the sting of failure and questioned our abilities.
Now translate this to your business. Often in the startup world, “entrepreneurs” are told that their success depends wholly on their abilities and, if they don’t experience the wild success they are seeking, that they aren’t good enough; they should retreat or give up. Fast failing seeks to take the stigma out of the word “failure” by emphasizing that the knowledge gained from a failed attempt actually increases the probability of an eventual success.
In reality, failure teaches us valuable lessons that can make your successes far more powerful and long lasting. The key is to experiment often until you find the hypothesis that works best. Making a series of small bets is the best way to come up with big results.
The Fast Fail Mentality
Many of the best entrepreneurs welcome failure and know that failing faster is the quickest way to success. These startups have a culture that embrace failure as the most effective path to learning. SpaceX comes to mind, but “fail fast, fail often” has been around for years. Remember Thomas Edison? He failed 9,000 times before his success with the lightbulb. I’m certainly not suggesting to fast fail that often. But both Musk and Edison were iterative. They balanced their creative and critical thinking with the need to apply their learning to future successes.
Fast failing is a philosophy that values testing and incremental development to determine if an idea has value or is a success. An important goal of this philosophy is to learn, cut losses when testing reveals something isn’t working and quickly try something else.
According to Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn--authors of the book Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner--"Smart leaders, entrepreneurs, and change agents design their innovation projects with a key idea in mind: ensure that every failure is maximally useful."
I spent a day with Google’s thought leadership for employees during my time at Stanford University, and the one focus they kept driving home was the celebration of failure. By changing the narrative and celebrating failures, Google has lowered the time between consecutive attempts at success. Let’s suppose that every attempt at success in any initiative has the same odds of succeeding as the last attempt. Even if those odds are low, every attempt increases the chance of at least one success.
If instead of rebuking failure, entrepreneurs focus on their next attempt at success, the rate at which they succeed would increase. Celebrate your failures and your successes: fail faster and make more attempts at success. Most importantly, learn from failures and incorporate those learnings into the next iteration.
Creating a Culture of Fast Failing
When it comes to the workplace or your company, you may be thinking, “How do I encourage fast failing?” Well, I feel that avoiding the opposite, slow failing, often helps more than encouraging the fast failing method. A slow failure is anything that takes a great deal of build-up and expenditure of time and resources that ultimately fails.
Instead of planning and using up valuable resources on one big attempt, take smaller steps and plan to test components to build towards more successes. Ideate on how you might test the basic hypotheses of a large-scale project today to determine if the project will succeed or fail. Celebrate these small failures because they ultimately saved you from a big slow failure.
5 Tips for Failing Fast, Succeeding Faster (this part could be its own social media post later down the pike – each of these could be a Tweet)
1. Talk about failures
To learn from failures, you have to admit them, analyze them, and then openly discuss them with your team. Not just at the end of an initiative, but also at regular intervals throughout so that you can iterate quickly and move on to another attempt at success.
2. Be honest
Failing better means being honest and forthright about mistakes that you or the people on your team make. When you cover up mistakes or soft pedal them, then you can't learn everything you possibly can from them. This takes courage, so be brave.
3. Watch for potential traps
Avoid the trap of getting so deeply into a particular approach that you just can't let go of it--even after it's been shown to be the wrong one. Keep your ego at bay--when an avenue turns into a dead end, don't hesitate to let it go and find another.
4. Focus on learning
The real aim is not to fail, but to learn and be iterative. To succeed, we must be open to failure, but the intention is that we are learning from our mistakes as we tweak, re-set and then redo if necessary.
5. Build resilience
You can't let failure slow you down--the faster you fail, learn lessons, and experiment again, the faster you'll find the solutions you are looking for. Practice fast failing--and then bouncing back just as quickly to try again.
Remember, the rate of “attempts” at success is the defining characteristic of highly successful companies, people, and programs and negative associations with failure often led to a decrease in total attempts and the actual achievement of success. Learn from your failures, iterate and keep trying. By embracing fast failing, you’ll succeed even faster!