Wingard, Jason. (2020). “Don’t Fail Fast — Fail Smart.” Forbes.com.
February 21, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonwingard/2020/02/21/dont-fail-fast–fail-smart/?sh=291cc5041b3a
“Fail fast, fail often” has become something of a mantra in modern business parlance, especially in the rapid-fire world of technology.
Yet, while seemingly ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, the fail-fast mentality is actually quite controversial. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spurns it; research from Northwestern University supports it. Some leaders call it the “worst advice ever”; others reportedly emblazon it on their walls. Even this outlet contains articles with the contradictory headlines “How to Fail Faster — and Why You Should” and “The Foolishness of Fail Fast, Fail Often.”
So what is the right approach? To fail fast, or not? Though the answer to that question may vary by company, there is one thing upon which every leader can agree: the importance of failing smart. Here are three ways leaders can promote smart failure at their organizations.
Empower Your Team
When Jeanne Ross and Nils Fonstad, scientists at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, studied failure last year, they discovered that — contrary to popular belief — failure is usually not beneficial. “Leaders often assume that failures will lead to valuable learning,” they wrote. “Our data doesn’t support that assumption.” Since most failures have multiple, intersecting causes, they said it is “difficult to extract a reliable summary of lessons learned.”
Thus, rather than a fail-fast culture, Ross and Fontad urged business leaders to develop a “learn-fast” culture. To do so, they said it is essential to shift from a traditional hierarchical structure toward smaller, cross-functioning teams that are empowered to conduct their own experiments. As Sara Brown explained for MIT Sloan, “[L]earning fast requires teams to test hypotheses instead of acting on information passed along a hierarchical chain.”
An example of this, according to Ross and Fontad, can be found at 7-Eleven Japan, where the company asks sales clerks to choose what to stock each week, then adjust their future decisions based upon sales reports. In comparison to action-first mindsets, the scientists found this behavior can lead to “more thoughtful actions and a better understanding of outcomes” by employees. “[E]ffective teams are not designed with the idea that they should fail fast,” they wrote. “They are most successful if they are designed to hypothesize, question, and learn.”In order to create a culture in which failure is acceptable — if not encouraged — Doug Sundheim, author of Taking Smart Risks, says leaders should first outline acceptable failure for their teams. “Everyone in your organization knows what success is,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Far fewer know what a smart failure is.” If leaders do not define this for their organizations, Sundheim said “all failure looks risky and it will kill creativity and innovation.”
Guy Raz, host of “How I Built This” and the “TED Radio Hour” on NPR, is one leader who has created an environment where staffers are allowed to fail — as long as it is within the previously-defined boundaries. He said it takes more than a year of “hand holding” before the shows’ interns are able to produce a segment on their own. “We give them a lot of time and space to screw up, but we always have a safety net under them,” he said at a Chief Learning Officer conference. “They might screw something up, but it’s never going to be catastrophic. It’s never going to destroy the show.”
Embrace the Scientific Process
Although failure need not be a company’s end goal, it need not be a punishable offense, either, as admonishing employees for failure can quickly lead to a culture of stagnation and fear. Unfortunately, this is more common than one might expect: According to a Gallup poll, only 21% of U.S. employees strongly agree with the statement, “My company creates an environment where people can try, fail and learn from mistakes.”
As illustrated by the aforementioned MIT research, leaders who want to fail smart can rely on the scientific process for guidance. When embarking on a new project, for example, they should encourage their teams to develop a hypothesis, test it, and then use those results to learn and improve. “Think like an experimenter,” advised Luis Martins, a professor at McCombs School of Business. “There’s a potential that it’s going to come out different than you expect, but… Smart failure involves testing a hypothesis based on good reasoning, assumptions, and data.”
Iteration is crucial, as well. Failing should be part of a process wherein teams are compelled to conduct small tests, create prototypes, and then begin the cycle again. “[I]t’s rare that a successful company got there merely by lurching from failure to failure,” Patrick Gray wrote at TechRepublic. “Rather than throwing initiatives at the proverbial wall to see what sticks, the best companies seek to evolve and progress through testing and learning. It may seem like a semantic difference, but testing and learning is significantly different than failing fast.”
The most important element of the scientific process is, of course, learning from the results — and, when it comes to business, doing so without placing blame. For Gallup, Marco Nink suggested sharing lessons via a “curated message board, a semiannual team presentation or an agenda item in regular team meetings”; any method that makes employees “feel like problems are dealt with constructively, not punitively.” In The Globe and Mail, Ashley Good agreed, saying: “Intelligent failure can be embedded into business procedures through blameless post-mortems and incorporating discussions about past and possible future failures into meeting agendas.”
In conclusion, whether a leader embraces or eschews the fail-fast philosophy, they should, at the very least, cultivate an environment wherein failure is an accepted part of progress. “As a leader, build an environment (people, practices, tools), that enables creativity and curiosity to flourish,” Dominic Price wrote at Atlassian. “Ensure that you are learning along the way. An environment where assumptions and hypotheses are tested, where early feedback is sought, and where the mindset is all about experimentation and exploration — that’s where real innovation lies.”