Learn to fail

Plenty of us grew up fearing failure. Some of us even developped an abnormal, persistent fear of failure. It stops us from trying things in life. We’ll settle for mediocrity to avoid the risks inherent in distinguishing ourselves. Because modern society places so much emphasis on perfection in every aspect of life, we’ll often not risk trying until perfection is assured. If this sounds familiar, this post is for you. Keep reading as I try to explain to you the importance of learning to fail if you want to be successful.

For people who are familiar with DISC profiles, they will readily understand that as a high D / high C, I am generally hard to live with but more to the point I am torn between perfectionism and impatience. I will start something and work on it as a perfectionist. It has to be just right. I can’t let go of minor imperfections. At least this holds true up to the point that I’m almost done and then suddenly, boom, I get impatient and I’ll decide I’m done with something. This gets me 95% of the way there to console my perfectionist self. It generally means that I’ll have a relatively good introduction, a good central part but the conclusion is really not thought out that well. Maybe you have noticed that trend in the articles on this blog as well. It’s my high D side that is reminding my high C side not to let perfect be the enemy of good. Before spending all that time trying to get something just right, put it out there and get some feedback. Then iterate and go through everything once more and make improvements where needed. Work on a Minimum viable product and get it out there. Then iterate, iterate, iterate.

Minimum viable product

The iterative loop starts with getting from an idea to a minimum viable product as soon as possible. Then it is closed by measuring customer response, collecting the data and applying the key learnings to the next iteration.

I work as a process and product development manager in an R&D team that is embedded in a business unit. For the longest time we’ve had a pipeline full of new projects. The high workload and pressure to deliver on those projects has kept us preoccupied, giving us scarcely enough free time to come up with new ideas. However, the end of some of those projects is coming in sight and we’ve found ourselves in an ideation phase again. This is a very different mode of operation than the execution mode where deadlines and deliverables force us to make quick decissions to minimize risk and find the most efficient road to success. We have been asked to fill the funnel with a very broad spectrum of ideas and everything goes in the brainstorm sessions.

In former times the business development manager was a one-man wrecking crew who had to go out into the world to understand what our customers needed or what additional markets could be developped. He rarely shared his ideas with the R&D team and would work on certain projects for months at a time without interacting with us. Lately he’s been asked to bring together several people in the organization to get more ideas and also to challenge ideas in an earlier fase of the process. It no longer made any sense for him to work on an idea for months only for it to be shot down within the first ten minutes of a meeting with the rest of the team. It’s ok for an idea to fail but it needs to happen much faster. The turn-around time from ideation to having the idea challenged by a broader audience needed to be drastically shortened. Multiple people have relevant experiences and useful insights into the customer needs. The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Don’t keep ideas to yourself. Share them, ask people to challenge them and eventually you will learn the value of your idea much faster.

Fail early, fail often, fail forward. Is this just the latest Silicon Valley hype or is there something to it? Are you in a culture where failure is expected and tolerated? Or are you in a culture where you need to fake it til you make it? I’m not one who enjoys keeping up appearances. I prefer to admit to my failures. Every failure is a chance to learn something and I highly encourage you to contribute wherever you can to forming a culture where the value of failure is recognized. When you are innovating, the organization that embraces failure and speeding up the feedback loop will always beat the perfectionist organization to market. And without a doubt there is incredible value in being first. Additionally, the organization that never admits to failure comes across as arrogant and will miss out on feedback opportunities that will help you understand your customer’s needs. Don’t be those guys.

When did you last put yourself out there? When did you last put yourself in a position where failure was a realistic outcome? Don’t stay in your comfort zone. Realize your potential and remind yourself to keep failing forward.