Fail Fast In Q1

Your corporation probably has big ideas, big plans and big goals for 2017.

My advice, seek failure, fail fast and learn from it.  The more projects or ideas that you can prove wrong (not viable business endeavors /investments) in Q1 the better your company will be in Q4.

Most companies percolate ideas and project throughout the year and arrive at somewhat obvious conclusions too late and thus are unable to pivot to a better ideas before the year ends.


Why seek failure?

Astro Teller is an entrepreneur, inventor, and author.  He worked as the “Captain of Moonshots” for X -formerly called Google X.

He reveals the secret of their success.  “We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong. That’s it, that’s the secret. Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. The only way to get people to work on big, risky things — audacious ideas — and have them run at all the hardest parts of the problem first, [and you do this by making] that the path of least resistance for them.” And Google X does this by making it safe to fail.

According to Teller: “Teams kill their ideas as soon as the evidence is on the table because they’re rewarded for it. They get applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from their manager, me in particular. They get promoted for it. We have bonused every single person on teams that ended their projects”

This supports the observations of Tim Harford the author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, “Google fails a lot, but they learn fast.  Google values failure in the following ways:

1) Discerning why you failed and applying that to future projects; and

2) Speed to fail fast and early before investing more than necessary or damaging your brand.


So if you’re not Google then what should you do?

Adaptation should be the code word that you use instead of fail fast.  Failure makes executives very nervous.

Adaptation according to Harford in a business context means: “In a complex world, we must use an adaptive, experimental approach to succeed. The more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes. We can’t begin to predict whether our ‘great idea’ will actually sink or swim once it’s out there.”

Harford outlines three principles for failing productively: “You have to cast a wide net, ‘practice failing’ in a safe space, and be primed to let go of your idea if you’ve missed the mark.”

How to adapt:

Try new things.

“Expose yourself to lots of different ideas and try lots of different approaches, on the grounds that failure is common.”

Experiment where failure is survivable.

“Look for experimental approaches where there’s lots to learn – projects with small downsides but bigger upsides. Too often we take on projects where the cost of failure is prohibitive, and just hope for the best.”

Recognize when you haven’t succeeded.

“The third principle is the easiest to state and the hardest to stick to: know when you’ve failed.”

The more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes.

The problem is failure.  We don’t like and we often react badly.

When it comes to failing, our egos are our own worst enemies. As soon as things start going wrong, our defense mechanisms kick in, tempting us to do what we can to save face. Yet, these very normal reactions — denial, chasing your losses, and hedonic editing — wreak havoc on our ability to adapt.


“It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit we’ve made a mistake and try to put it right. It requires you to challenge a status quo of your own making.”

Chasing your losses.

We’re so anxious not to “draw a line under a decision we regret” that we end up causing still more damage while trying to erase it. For example, poker players who’ve just lost some money are primed to make riskier bets than they’d normally take, in a hasty attempt to win the lost money back and “erase” the mistake.

Hedonic editing.

When we engage in “hedonic editing,” we try to convince ourselves that the mistake doesn’t matter, bundling our losses with our gains or finding some way to reinterpret our failures as successes.


Balancing goals in a complex world

Why do we and corporations set Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goals (BHAG)?

The term ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ was proposed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 book entitled Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.


A BHAG encourages companies to define visionary goals that are more strategic and emotionally compelling. Moon Shot, the Manhattan project or the Death Start are good examples of a BHAG. The concept is that these goals help align employees of the business to work together more effectively.


BHAG’s often try to solve very complex problems with simple objectives.

Tim Harford calls this a “God complex” in which companies reward leaders with BHAG and believe that only smart people (“little Gods”) can solve complex problems — “when what they should really be doing is establishing systematic processes of trial and error.”

The God Complex is further defined this way by Harford.  “…you believe that no matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution” or in other words “people who, in the face of an incredibly complicated world, are nevertheless absolutely convinced that they understand the way that the world works.


So this is the complexity of the world that surrounds us. This perhaps is why we find the God complex so tempting. We tend to retreat and say, We can draw a picture, we can post some graphs, we get it, we understand how this works. And we don’t. We never do.”


What is the right approach?


“I’m not trying to say we can’t solve complicated problems in a complicated world.” Says Harford.  “We clearly can. But the way we solve them is with humility — to abandon the God complex and to actually use a problem-solving technique that works. And we have a problem-solving technique that works. Now you show me a successful complex system, and I will show you a system that has evolved through trial and error.”


We should take a closer look at Agile.


Agile software development is a group of software development methods that promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change.”

How this applies in general to life and business is that agile methods are focused on quick responses to change and continuous development (improvement).  They help you adapt to complex and changing circumstances.

When applied to goal setting some recommend an agile approach to planning for success.

Behavior science expert James Clear summarizes his argument about goals vs system, which could by my interpretation embrace an agile system:

“None of this is to say that goals are useless. However, I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress. Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Having a system is what matters. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.”


Blogger and software developer Stefen Magnuson said this: “If you adopt an agile system with built-in feedback mechanism, continuous process improvement and short-term goals, then you already take into account things beyond your control and having a strong long-term vision will guide you to keep on performing even if you achieve some of your goals.”

What we really need is to learn from failure.

Amy C. Edmondson, a Professor at Harvard Business School, had brilliant insight and research into learning from failure:

“The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare.

Most executives I’ve talked to believe that failure is bad (of course!). They also believe that learning from it is pretty straightforward: Ask people to reflect on what they did wrong and exhort them to avoid similar mistakes in the future—or, better yet, assign a team to review and write a report on what happened and then distribute it throughout the organization.

These widely held beliefs are misguided. First, failure is not always bad. In organizational life it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. Second, learning from organizational failures is anything but straightforward. The attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures are in short supply in most companies, and the need for context-specific learning strategies is underappreciated. Organizations need new and better ways to go beyond lessons that are superficial (“Procedures weren’t followed”) or self-serving (“The market just wasn’t ready for our great new product”). That means jettisoning old cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of success and embracing failure’s lessons. Leaders can begin by understanding how the blame game gets in the way.


Executives I’ve interviewed in organizations as different as hospitals and investment banks admit to being torn: How can they respond constructively to failures without giving rise to an anything-goes attitude? If people aren’t blamed for failures, what will ensure that they try as hard as possible to do their best work?


We need a Culture of Learning from your failures


Edmondson continues “Only leaders can create and reinforce a culture that counteracts the blame game and makes people feel both comfortable with and responsible for surfacing and learning from failures. (See the sidebar “How Leaders Can Build a Psychologically Safe Environment.”) They should insist that their organizations develop a clear understanding of what happened—not of “who did it”—when things go wrong. This requires consistently reporting failures, small and large; systematically analyzing them; and proactively searching for opportunities to experiment.

In short, exceptional organizations are those that go beyond detecting and analyzing failures and try to generate intelligent ones for the express purpose of learning and innovating. It’s not that managers in these organizations enjoy failure. But they recognize it as a necessary by-product of experimentation. They also realize that they don’t have to do dramatic experiments with large budgets. Often a small pilot, a dry run of a new technique, or a simulation will suffice.



What then can we draw from this advice on failing fast and learning fast?

From personal goals to IT projects that fail, the cycle will continue next year if we don’t learn from failure and adapt to changing markets and technologies. The true goal of your projects and initiatives is to get the right idea to market and if you have to pivot, iterate and try again it is all worth it if the best product solves the right problem that customers are willing to pay for.

If we can frame our research activities in Q1 under the guise of saving our corporation money by iterating and testing our ideas early in the year, we will have the ability to stay the course or pivot to new ideas.


If you don’t have a culture of learning then frame each investment in research as a way to prove ideas early and in incubation before a large capital spend.  That way if you fail early, you can call it a market adaptation strategy and move forward quickly to a better approach.

Adaptation (learning from your failures) is good for business and if you can embrace this approach you can make the right moves, early and more profoundly.


-Shane Lester, Author of Hacking Failure

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