Don’t Fail Fast – Learn Fast

Don't Fail Fast - Learn FastThere is a lot of chatter out there about the concept of ‘failing fast’ as a way of fostering innovation and reducing risk. Sometimes the concept of ‘failing fast’ is merged with ‘failing cheap’ to form the following refrain – ‘fail fast, fail cheap, fail often’.

Now don’t get me wrong, one of the most important things an organization can do is learn to accept failure as a real possibility in their innovation efforts, and even to plan for it by taking a portfolio approach that balances different risk profiles, time horizons, etc.

The problem that I have with all of this chatter about failing fast is that does not take into account the power of language. The language focuses people on failing instead of on the goal – learning. My friend Stefan Lindegaard has recognized this and has incorporated learning into his ‘smartfailing‘. But even this approach misses the mark by remaining focused on failure.

When it comes to innovation, it is not as important whether you fail fast or fail slow or whether you fail at all, but how fast you learn. And make no mistake, you don’t have to fail to innovate (although there are always some obstacles along the way). With the right approach to innovation you can learn quickly from failures AND successes.

The key is to pursue your innovation efforts as a discrete set of experiments designed to learn certain things, and instrumenting each project phase in such a way that the desired learning is achieved.

The central question should always be:

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About Braden Kelley

Braden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B inbound marketing strategies that attract and engage customers, partners, and employees. He is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. Braden has been advising companies on how to increase their revenue and cut their costs since 1996, while living and working in England, Germany, and the United States. Braden earned his MBA from top-rated London Business School.
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13 Responses to Don’t Fail Fast – Learn Fast

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  3. Hasn’t this long been one of IDEO’s mantras? I believe they put it as “fail often in order to succeed sooner.”

  4. admin says:

    Thanks Jeffrey,

    Another great example of focusing on failure instead of setting up the organization to learn whether success or failure is the outcome.

    @innovate

  5. I’ve been pondering this for a while as well. We focus on 2 binary aspects (such a human thing to do) – either success or failure, not a middle ground. What if we focus, as you express, on learning – one of my frustrations is that people always talk about learning from failure but not as much about learning from success – root cause analysis is generally done when things go wrong, not when things go right – so innovation is an learn-apply-adapt-learn-apply-adapt (or some order therein)…which means iterative prototyping, experimenting as the ‘how’ –

    thoughts?
    deb

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  7. admin says:

    Thanks Deb,

    I would just add a few more in there:

    Develop-instrument-test-launch-learn-apply-adapt-test-launch-learn-apply-adapt-…

    And, you’re right people too often forget to ask “Why did that work?” when they ask “Why did that fail?”.

    We are eventually doomed to failure if we don’t understand why something succeeds, because it leaves open the possibility for someone else to come along and understand the reason for success and thus identify understand the greater potential hidden in the success (i.e. Apple in smartphones) than the people who first achieved the success (i.e. Nokia, Blackberry, Palm in smartphones).

    It is sometimes hard to differentiate between a partial success and a big success.

    You can learn from the partial success of your own efforts or those of others.

    But, you can only do so, if it is one of your conscious product/service development goals.

    So, what can we learn from success?

    I think I’ll write a followup article on learning from success.

    Braden
    @innovate

  8. Hi Braden: I like this discussion a lot and I agree with your assertion. One of the interesting things that I have learned over the years is that the terms “success” and “failure” are not always easy to apply in an absolute sense. Rather, they are often used to define performance relative to expectations…which sometimes can be misplaced. So, the idea of examining outcomes and learnings…independent of the labels “success” or “failure” is very refreshing and frankly, healthy.

    Best regards,

    Michael

  9. Pingback: Don’t Fail Fast – Learn Fast by Braden Kelley | AMIconsultancy

  10. Our team just came out with a new Tshirt slogan that captures this idea well.

    “Fail: The Birthplace of Brilliance”.

    Solutions do not often come from rational thought – you must lower your guard, let your mind wander, and be willing to fail for true brilliance to occur.

    Planning for failure involves self discipline to disrupt your normal routine, allow your mind to wander, and accept any connections that spark. Corporate structure, standard offices, and 8-5 schedules are barriers to achieving beneficial failure.

  11. Pingback: On failing and fast learning. Article by Braden Kelley | AMIconsultancy

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