‘Fail fast, fail often’ is essential advice for innovators

Yes, it is a negative statement, but in uttering it, you desensitize the team to a harmful fear of failure.

I am responding today to an article in The Globe and Mail titled “‘Fail fast, fail often’ may be the stupidest business mantra of all time.”  The article criticizes this saying on two points.  First, business people have a hard time saying it, and don’t come across as credible.  Second, the statement focuses on the negative which is … negative.   The author proposed an improved statement: “Succeed fast, adjust or move on.”

Recasting it like this shows that the author does not understand the point of making the statement in the first place.  Psychologists have demonstrated that people naturally have a bais against loss.  Given a carefully designed test, people will value $100 loss as equivalent to $200 of gain.  That is, people are naturally very loss averse.  Irrationally so.  People naturally tend to form groups that tend to punish failure as a way to prevent even small failures.

Saying “succeed fast” does not really give the option for failure.  Fear of failure has a powerful inhibiting effect which needs to be countered, particularly in an organization that strives to be innovative.

While success is the goal, there is one thing worse than failure, and that is doing nothing.  If you do nothing, you always lose.  On average, people will come up with good ideas, but not always.  If you fear failure, if you have a culture that punished failure, then members will not try.  They will wait until they are sure they have a success, and only then act.  Many many opportunities will be lost because the risk of failure might be a fraction of the benefit of success, but that risk prevents action.

When a leader says “fail fast, fail often” they make it clear that failure is a word that we can talk about.  Failure is no longer taboo.  It may be hard for them to say it — nobody said that leadership was easy.  They want success, they don’t like talking about failure, but doing so makes it clear that the culture would rather see you try and sometimes fail, than it is to not try at all.

Some say that you can only learn from your mistakes.  But you can’t learn if you don’t make any mistakes.  If people are too fearful to try, you won’t have a learning organization.

Another silicon valley statement is: “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.”  This focuses on the negative as well, but it is essential to the spirit of innovation that you make it clear that success is not required 100% of the time, and action is valued over inaction.

While the ‘fail fast, fail often’ statement is negative, it inoculates the group against a crippling fear of failure.  Far from the stupidest mantra of all time, it shows depth of wisdom and skill of leadership.  The writer of this article clearly does not understand the dynamics of an innovative organization.

(See “When Thinking Matters in the Workplace” chapter 4: “Agile Management” on Amazon)

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