The benefits of failure

‘Fail fast’ – the idea of embracing failure – is quickly becoming a buzzphrase in the corporate landscape. I have heard this more and more from senior leaders and CEOs at conference presentations over the last 18 months.

It’s a great principle and lies at the heart of the innovation process and design thinking. I think that within the walls of Google, where I believe this phrase originated, it may be applicable. Outside however, I think ‘fail’ may not be the best word.

The reason being that so many of us still get caught up in the word ‘fail’ and its negative connotations.

Fear of failure is a huge paralysis on innovation. I see it every day. We are gripped by the fear of failure, especially in the corporate space.

The notion of failure is that something didn’t work: ‘an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success’. The problem with this definition is that failure represents the end game with no next step.  Now that we have failed, what next? Do we learn, do we debrief, what do we action? What have we learnt by failing? What have we gained?

I like the idea of experimenting at speed instead of ‘failing fast’. This seems to conjure ideas a better experience. Would you rather be in a failure lab or an experimentation lab? Would you rather say “today I failed” or “today I experimented”?

The very nature of innovation is that there are some unknowns. There have to be. When we are operating at the edge of what has been done traditionally, we don't know how some things will turn out. How do we find out? We have to try it and see.

The idea behind the phrase ‘fail fast’ is to create something, test it quickly on the market on a small scale, get feedback and reset. If it worked as intended, there are great learnings and it can move forward. If the market gives you different feedback to what you imagined, use this to create something better. As it’s been done on a small scale, the implications aren’t huge and the learning is rich. Great ideas come from failures and you don’t know until you test it.

So experiment quickly, experiment on a small scale, experiment often, learn from it, apply it and repeat. Great improvements come from this process. It’s at the heart of innovation and being responsive to the market.

Ask your team this question, “If we could experiment with one thing at work, what would it be?” I guarantee it will have a much better response than “If we could fail at one thing at work, what would it be?” 

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