Stop "Failing Faster"
September 15, 2014

Stop "Failing Faster"

by Brian de Haaff

We have all gone soft and lost our minds. How many times have you heard that there is no failure, just learnings? Right. Maybe when you were an infant. It is time to get real and stop kidding ourselves. Failure is real, there are consequences for achieving it, and we should stop trying to do more of it.

This “fail faster” obsession is a new phenomenon. It comes in many forms, but everyone from Michael Jordan to Domino’s Pizza is recommending it. They suggest that a “fail fast” mindset explains their own success because they were not worried about messing up, they achieved greatness. It seems to be one of the dominant personal and business cliches of our time.

Don’t be fooled — those who embrace failure want to convert you. If you listen closely, the mantra is delivered in all types of subtle ways but it always stinks of disappointment.
  • “Fail fast. Succeed faster.”

  • “Failure: The secret to success.”

  • “F.A.I.L: First attempt in learning.”

  • “What if you fail? You will. Then, you move on.”

  • “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Now, it is true that Thomas Edison wrote, “I have not failed, I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” The prevalent thinking now is that if he had just failed much faster he might have succeeded sooner. But I think that is the wrong interpretation and worse, a misguided lesson to try and teach. We are focusing on the wrong aspect of effort.

I spoke with a vice president at a gaming company on Friday while discussing Aha! and he shared an informative story. He just adopted a broken team that had spent $15M building a failed game. They were told from the beginning of the project to “fail fast” and iterate along the way. Time-to-market was priority number one.

Well, you can guess what happened with the game. They never stopped to think deeply about where they were headed and rapidly brought a certified loser to market.

He is now working with the team to slow down and think more deeply. He is also talking a lot more about focusing on the right behaviors for success and not hiding behind the ruinous concept of the “inevitability of failure.” If you motivate the right behaviors, the results will follow.

This approach is radically different than focusing on failure which almost always fates an unhappy outcome because it is positioned as a goal unto itself. It is like staring at a tree while you are riding a bike — you are almost guaranteed to run into it.

So, how do we look out and focus on the right behaviors for success? I suggest that there are four actions that we can take.

Study Creating anything of value is hard, but it should not be excruciating. By clearly defining the problem you are trying to solve you can more easily visualize the right answer. You need to closely observe the situation to do this and by doing so, you can quickly work through the various options before taking action.

Plan How many meetings have you left asking yourself, “What did that relate to?” or “What was that decision based on?” Aligning the “whats” and “hows” of a plan to the “whys” is critical to team motivation and success. And when this does not happen, projects and companies struggle to keep up. Larger companies have more girth to survive, but by the time they are talking about “failing faster” they have already lost. You need to be able to clearly articulate “why” you are doing what you are doing and what steps you will take to succeed. This will also give you confidence and the opportunity to gather feedback on your thinking.

Practice You get better by practicing. It is straightforward. Even if you do something well, you will never be great or better than the rest by sitting idly and depending on past performance. You and your team must work and work and work some more. Find ways to improve the skills that you need to succeed. For example, you could take an advanced business writing class before submitting your grant request to increase the odds of bypassing failure and getting right to success.

Reflect When you have acted, it is important to humbly review the results. Advancement, at its best, follows a fairly scientific approach. If you thoughtfully act and the results do not follow your theory, you learned something. And If the results do match your hypothesis, then you have some confirmation that you are on the right track. Reflection closes the loop and once again can help you get to success.

Innovation should follow a thoughtful process where analysis, planning, and practice play a meaningful role. It is true that figuring out what works means that some ideas will need to be discarded, but aiming for failure should be avoided.

When people and businesses focus on positive outcomes and are rigorous in their pursuit of them, great achievements are realized. Failure is not a pre-destined burden that we must carry before we get there.

Let’s admit that failure hurts, should be avoided, and reject the prevailing obsession with it. If we do, more often than not we can leapfrog right to success.

Are you ready to start succeeding faster? Comments and votes welcome on Hacker News.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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