Fail Fast, Fail Often

PJ Surani / 2 years / No Comments

Buzzwords and concepts like ‘lean’, ‘agile’ and ‘Six Sigma’ habitually take centre stage in discussions about innovation. Unfortunately, more often than not, they’re misconstrued and suffer confused implementation.  On the same tack, the phrase ‘Fail fast and fail often’ regularly fails to deliver the benefits of the approach.

However, the case hyper-successful giants like FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix & Google) have mastered the strategy and reap the benefits. The core essence of this methodology essentially distills down to two key success criteria:


  • Iterate new ideas, optimize the ones that work and quickly ditch those that don’t.
  • Learn from both success AND failure, then be open with the results – knowing that failure often leads to the next success and is just part of the process.


The strategy is anything but new. It’s in our DNA to make a mistake, tweak and redo.  We were all children once, without inherent understanding or fear of failing. Just watch a child take their first steps, topple, get up and start over. It’s the same concept.


‘Fail fast and often’ isn’t a business tenet – it’s the reality of life and learning. Yes, failure is disappointing but kids bounce back, resilient and most importantly  of all – they develop the skill to scrap ideas, then explore and develop new ones. They’re edgy little triers and failure has little consequence except perhaps maybe some scrapes and tears. So if we evolve with DNA that tells us to move on quickly from life’s failures, what happens in life’s  journey to move on from failure quickly, why do most of us lose this instinct?

Unfortunately, abandoning this most basic aptitude has meant business are obliged to invest substantially in creating cultures where employees are able to overcome the paralysis of the fear of failure.


As Edison put it: ‘I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.’ The wizard of Menlo Park was without a doubt a gifted inventor, but surely his success was a direct result of his childlike attitude toward failure. He’s famous for moving on from even his biggest failures, never dwelling on or agonising about what was done, but simply striking forward onto the next idea.  


If company leaders and employees freed themselves from the hangover of past failures and put integrated, controlled experimentation at their core, perhaps Edison’s philosophy could manifest. We must learn from the past but not be hindered by it. Doesn’t this feel like the core essence of the present literature, training courses, workshops and other paraphernalia around this topic?  


Most companies have accepted the reality and rapidity of digital disruption, many even recognise that innovation teams need to be isolated and protected, hence their creating innovation labs or team incubators. Seldom though, is there a cohesive strategy that creates a culture of innovation throughout the organisation.


The dysfunctions of digital transformation begin with the lack of encouragement of new ideas both good and bad, create feedback and move forward. Instead, they lay a rocky foundation of resistance, experience a lack of shared vision and transformation fatigue.  


It’s not enough to simply accept the reality of digital disruption, there needs to be the ability to execute and a culture of urgency. Digital change is inevitable and cultural attunement to this should be curated like an experiment in a petri dish before being exposed to the organisation and allowed to flourish, thus becoming the norm.  


Over the years I have had the privilege of working alongside many organisations through their digital transformation efforts. Sitting on the outside allows me to observe impartially. Interestingly, the companies I saw reaping the benefits of transformation all share the following:


  • The recognition that innovation is not a top-down mandate – it is developed, nurtured and encouraged in every employee throughout the organisation.
  • The intelligence to know that actions like the ‘release of a mobile app’ or partaking in an innovation event is not enough. Innovation is unrelenting and continuous, it’s a state of mind reflected in actions.
  • They know that simply throwing money at the problem is not the answer
  • They acknowledge, and often embrace, failure – they have the maturity of presence to share and manage the feedback throughout the organisation
  • They are reactive, resilient and facilitate ongoing learning with opportunities for practical application
  • Most important of all – these companies are human-centric. They understand that an agenda driven by purpose drives profit and creates a shared vision of the future


The answers are clear, seek out and embrace the child within. Break the shackles of fearing failure – no idea is stupid, it’s perhaps just not yet fully formulated.

Have fun, make mistakes, flip a finger at failure and know that it’s all part of our true DNA. We fail, we learn, we improve and we move forward. One step at a time.