On Failure: Shift the Focus

On July 3, I shared a post via Simon Sinek on Facebook written by Elliot Weissbluth and titled “Leaders Eat Last' and Other Rules for Innovators”. I’m a fan of Simon’s work, and I try to share his stuff when it really resonates with me. I had misgivings about sharing this article, however, because it broaches the subject of failure. “Fail fast” is a catchy catch cry, but I think it focuses our attention on the wrong things. And, because it's now a part of our daily social media feed, whenever there is talk about failure people hear the urge to "fail fast" - and they roll their eyes.

I went ahead and shared it on the grounds that

1) The emphasis is more on how employees cannot succeed if they are afraid to fail and that failure and failing - or experimentation - are not the same thing

2) Failure is important. It's as important to our ability to grow as is success. But more about that later.

3) It is critical right now that we build the skills (via methodology like Design Thinking and Lean) to conduct strategic experimentation, and I want to support the dialogue around that.

Here's the post:

In the article, Elliot Weissbluth quotes Simon and details some of the points from a speech that he gave. He talks about how fear used as a motivating tool is destructive and puts limits on innovation. He talks about the role of failure in innovation:

“Failing—experimenting and tinkering until you get the desired result, with plenty of missteps along the way—is not the same as failure. Failing and trying again are necessary ingredients for success.”

In order to set teams up for success, it’s really important that leaders understand the links between fear and failure, and approach the two with very deliberate intentions. In our own work at Synexe, in our Innovation Intelligence diagnostic (InQ), we test for these very things because they are very distinct barriers or enablers of innovation. I see what Elliot is trying to say here, in explaining Simon's work, but we’ve got to be really careful with this idea of failure. Most of us don't make that fine of a distinction between failing and failure.

On the very same day, not long after I shared the article, a friend posted in their status update

My friend has their reasons. I object to touting failure as our newest silver bullet.



Real failure, where you invest your all: your heart, soul and inordinate amounts of precious time (years even)… blood, sweat and tears… your business, relationships, hard earned savings and your reputation… AND LOSE???!!! IT SUCKS.

Consider "Galloping Gertie," in the photograph up top. This world-famous colossal engineering failure didn't just waste taxpayer's dollars. People died. Or perhaps a less extreme example: layoffs. When you have to layoff people, close offices and publicize all the mistakes that seem so obvious in hindsight (or attempt to take comfort in the unforeseeable and unavoidable), it feels horrible. Those laid off may experience significant hardship, those that remain may experience survivor guilt, and those that have had to conduct the layoffs may experience regret and anxiety – all thinking that somehow they could have prevented the failure.

At these points in time, trying to take comfort in the idea of learning something seems hollow. It’s a small comfort – sometimes the only comfort – when failure sends you into a deep, dark abyss of horrible self-doubt, depression, anxiety, loss and seemingly never ending repercussions. It can take years to dig your self out of that hole. Some people never make it. Those that do emerge changed. Never quite the same again. Stronger and smarter and very likely humbler, more self aware and perhaps gentler too. These achievements are what we celebrate. But when the moment is raw...that's not quite the time to cheer on failure.

Please don’t mistake me. Failure can be the very thing you needed. Best thing ever! Just the perspective that was lacking. But don’t tell me to fail fast. I have too much respect for failure, real failure, to throw that term around.

This is my concern: in talking about failure, we risk missing the whole point altogether. Having a culture of experimentation is vitally important for the ongoing competitiveness and adaptability of organizations right now. Fail fast gets attention because it’s provocative and it sticks around because it’s easy to say. But it’s wrong. (Vomit)

1. First of all, failure feels negative. We are wired that way. And you’re never going to convince people otherwise. Failure implies that you invested your all and lost it all. Nobody wants to celebrate that, at least in the early days anyway. We need both the highs and the lows in our lives. So we owe it to ourselves to not whitewash over the negative with the positive. Let's be true to how failure really feels.

Recently Pascal Finette, The Heretic, has been talking about failure a lot on his blog. The post titled "Failure is Between You and You (and Nobody Else)" offers a new way to define failure. Quoting Sarah Lewis:

"Failure is the gap between where you are and where you want to go."

Pascal goes on in another post to urge us to "Embrace Failure". The support and permission Pascal is providing is an attempt to rewire how we think about failure. There are many people who are far too hard on themselves, and really need to take this redefinition to heart. As Pascal says, "Failure will improve you." This is truth. However, I still want to argue that we've got to be careful. A cheery "fail fast" mantra flies in the face of the appreciation and dignity we must reserve for real failure, epic failure.

2. Secondly, brandishing the catch cry "fail fast" puts the focus on the failing and not the learning. The learning you take onboard is the real hero here, not the failure itself. The learning is what helps us bootstrap our way back into the land of the living after real failure has knocked us for six. An attitude of learning from failure is a credit to the person and the organization, not the failure itself. Failure is an opportunity, and it's up to us to accept that opportunity. In order to make learning the default mindset, organizations need the ability to put in play simultaneous experiments that allow testing and learning – not just when it comes to how their apps work but also in how they evolve their business model. Having multiple options going at one time is what helps us to detach our emotions from the outcome – we get to take on the mindset of “What works?” Call it the scientific approach or the designer’s mind, but looking at options helps us think analytically – not emotionally – and take away real insight from a situation. Sorry learning isn’t as sexy or racy as "fail fast", but that’s what we’ve got to be able to do right now as organizations, as cultures, as a society.

3. Thirdly, “fail fast” turns what needs to be a robust organizational competency into the flavor of the month management methodology. The dreaded silver bullet. Let’s take this seriously. Use experimentation to have fun! Play with your food - and your ideas too! When teams are engaging in experiments, it builds energy. It builds capability too. People learn to think more critically and more creatively. This is positive. This is exciting! It catches on and stays – it becomes a part of your culture. Unlike a catchy catch cry that makes us want to vomit.

OK, but I won't mislead you. Using experimentation and looking at multiple options vastly improves your thinking and the results you get. But it doesn't make your challenges any easier. A challenge is still a challenge. And challenges require both personal and organizational fortitude to find a way through. That's why it's important to make an attitude of learning your default setting. You will still experience all the emotional highs and lows - particularly when you personally care about the outcome. And, to Pascal's point above, you still may need to readjust your expectations. This is what comes with doing hard work.

Here are three ways an organization can start to build the practices of experimentation:

  1. Look at multiple (more than two) options when making choices, whether individually or as a team. Talk through the pros and cons of each. Formulate your rationale for why you’re making decisions.
  2. Track metrics for your experiments. In the Lean philosophy, use actionable metrics. Whether qualitative or quantitative, find a way to help you make sense out of the results of your experiments. They should help you answer the question, “So what?”
  3. Have a portfolio of strategic initiatives that allow you to explore a range of possibilities for the future. Follow them out until proven untenable or promising. And then explore more.

So enough already. Let's change the conversation from failure to learning and experimentation. Go try stuff. See what works. Rinse and repeat. You’ll be amazed at the results! You'll be proud of what you learned and will likely discover that it doesn't feel anywhere near as awful as failure.

About the author

Michelle Miller is an organizational architect for Synexe, and her expertise is in strategic design. Working with industries as diverse as insurance, consumer products and communications, she helps organizations to design new business models, innovate in their processes, products and services, improve customer experience, and create internal structures and frameworks that build competitive advantage.