Fail fast, learn faster

Culture  Leadership
20 January, 2020

Let go of the need for perfection. Embracing intelligent failure is the key to innovation.

Success represents the 1 percent of your work which results from the 99 percent that is called failure.  ~ Soichiro Honda, founder of Honda 

Though the necessity and value of failure is widely accepted, most organisations remain highly averse to it. It’s not that managers don’t want to learn from mistakes and improve future performance – they do. However, most are afraid that if they start tolerating failure, it will lead to a lazy, anything-goes culture at the office. In reality, this fear is unfounded. What we should be far more afraid of is losing our competitive edge because of an inability to embrace failure and its lessons. 

So, this week, my message focuses on the “fail fast” mindset, which allows organisations to harness the vast potential of failure. As a leader, how can you increase the rate of intelligent failures in your team? And how can you maximise learning? 

In the Harvard Business Review article, Strategies for Learning from Failure, Amy Edmondson provides a spectrum of reasons for failure, which range from blameworthy to praiseworthy. These include:

  • Intentionally violating a prescribed process (preventable)
  • Deviating from process due to lack of attention (preventable)
  • Process with multiple elements breaks down due to new interactions (complexity related)
  • Reasonable actions don’t work due to lack of clarity about future (complexity related)
  • Hypothesis testing to prove a new idea fails (intelligent)
  • Experiment to expand knowledge doesn’t produce desired outcome (intelligent)

 Clearly, not all failures are blameworthy or preventable. As Edmondson shares:

 When I ask executives to consider this spectrum and then to estimate how many of the failures in their organizations are truly blameworthy, their answers are usually in single digits-perhaps 2% to 5%. But when I ask how many are treated as blameworthy, they say (after a pause or a laugh) 70% to 90%. The unfortunate consequence is that many failures go unreported and their lessons are lost.

The first response to any failure is to assign blame. Who is responsible? Who made the fatal error? Who can we pin the blame on? These are the questions people ask instead of trying to find out what exactly happened, why it happened and what can be learned from it.

Even though culpable mistakes are few and far between, the first response to any failure is to assign blame. Who is responsible? Who made the fatal error? Who can we pin the blame on? These are the questions people ask instead of trying to find out what exactly happened, why it happened and what can be learned from it. As a result of this blame game, people prefer to sweep mistakes under the rug, which stifles learning and improvement. Remember, some errors are an inevitable result of complexity – while these can’t be eliminated, they should be rapidly identified and corrected to make the process more robust.

When we rapidly produce a series of small, learning-focused failures, we set ourselves up for future success. This approach, known as “fail fast”, is tailor-made for today’s business landscape. In the Forbes piece, How To Fail Faster – And Why You Should, Sunnie Giles explains that the need of the hour is iteration not perfection: 

In today’s complex business environment, where things are changing constantly, speed of execution is a lot more important than perfect execution. While you’re trying to perfect a certain solution or product, the situation might have changed already, rendering your product or solution irrelevant. Make it “good enough,” ship it, improve it based on market feedback, rinse and repeat. This approach attains a solution much faster because of the snowball effect of iterative learning. 

For the fail-fast mindset to take root in an organisation, the leadership must get on board. It’s up to each one of us to stop the blame game and create a culture in which it’s safe to fail fast, surface mistakes and optimise learning. Here are eight recommendations: 

1. Don’t shoot the messenger 

All too often, those who bring up concerns, doubts or bad news are punished for it, which further reinforces the silence around failure. Julie Morath, former CEO of Children’s Hospital and Clinics of Minnesota, recognised this during her very successful effort to curb medical errors at the hospital. As part of the initiative, she introduced “blameless reporting”, which allowed team members to anonymously come forward with mistakes and to provide information on possible causes. The rate of reported failures escalated sharply, and Morath welcomed the increased data as a positive learning opportunity.  

So, next time someone comes forward to report a failure, don’t react with anger and hostility. Instead, take a breath, thank the person for being brave enough to speak up and move on to the next step – analysis.  

2. Analyse deeply 

As Edmondson explains in the article mentioned above, people tend to focus more on getting over failure than learning from it: 

Why is failure analysis often shortchanged? Because examining our failures in depth is emotionally unpleasant and can chip away at our self-esteem. Left to our own devices, most of us will speed through or avoid failure analysis altogether. 

For real learning to happen, you need to go past the superficial reasons and dig deeper. One way to do this is to bring together different viewpoints from within the organisation: 

Motivating people to go beyond first-order reasons (procedures weren’t followed) to understanding the second-and third-order reasons can be a major challenge. One way to do this is to use interdisciplinary teams with diverse skills and perspectives. Complex failures in particular are the result of multiple events that occurred in different departments or disciplines or at different levels of the organization. Understanding what happened and how to prevent it from happening again requires detailed, team-based discussion and analysis. 

3. Facilitate learning 

Sometimes, a team member makes the same mistake over and over again, which can be frustrating for you as their manager. In such a scenario, ask yourself – Why is this happening? Have I created the right environment for learning? Have I given the person the tools they need to extract lessons from failure? One of the causes of failure is lack of skills and training – could this be behind the repeated errors? 

4. Run useful pilots 

Due to the fear of failure, pilots are often designed to look good – rather than yield genuine insights. When a pilot is tested under optimal conditions (e.g., ideal operating environment, expert customer agents, perfect customers), it’s likely to succeed and “prove” the value of the new product. But that isn’t the point of a pilot – the goal is to explore all the things that can go wrong, maximise learning and strengthen the product and rollout accordingly. 

5. Differentiate between mistakes 

Embracing failure doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be held accountable. Even in a safe work environment, it’s important to be clear about what kind of mistakes are acceptable (e.g., complexity-related errors, innovation failures) and what kind aren’t (e.g., intentional violation of company values, reckless risk taking). Taking away the ambiguity makes employees feel more secure because they know it’s safe to bring up unavoidable or praiseworthy failures.

6. Encourage participation 

Overcoming the deep-rooted resistance to failure is tough: people don’t like to discuss their mistakes or admit that there’s room for improvement. In her article, Edmondson highlights the effectiveness of getting people involved: 

Ask for observations and ideas and create opportunities for people to detect and analyze failures and promote intelligent experiments. Inviting participation helps defuse resistance and defensiveness. 

7. Focus on learning, not outcomes 

A results-oriented mindset doesn’t work in innovation – it limits potential and forces you to play it safe. Creativity requires a different approach, where the spotlight is on the actual process. An organisation can do this by reducing the scale of action so lots of people can take on small experiments, and by offering reasonably-challenging goals that spark interest yet are also accessible. As Edmondson explains, the learning mindset needs to be continually reinforced: 

Leaders should also send the right message about the nature of the work, such as reminding people in R&D, “We’re in the discovery business, and the faster we fail, the faster we’ll succeed.” 

8. Make room for structured chaos 

In the Forbes article, Failure Is 99% Of The Work: How To Fail Fast On The Way To Spectacular Innovation, Jim Ludema and Amber Johnson offer an interesting insight around “collisions” between different domains, explaining that the meeting of ideas from varied sources can generate innovation. You can create the opportunity for such collisions through “structured chaos”, where different influences are allowed to co-exist and interact without a clear path forward. In this uncertain space, ideas can mingle and spark brilliant new inventions. 

So, what do you plan to fail at this week?

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