There Are Better Ways to Fail

Failure is inevitable, but how you fail can make all the difference for your organization.

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So I’d like you to be thinking about the notion of failure differently.

In uncertain environments, stop worrying about the rate of failure. You can afford a lot of failures if they’re cheap.

What do they say about this in Silicon Valley? The watchword is fail fast. Fail cheap. Move on.

So, here are some of the principles of failing in an intelligent way.

First principle: You want to know what success would look like, right? You’d be amazed at the number of companies I work with who say, “Well, we’re not quite sure what success would look like, but we think there’s a great sort of idea over here.” And they get way down a track without ever having really thought about it.

Next is: Focus on converting assumptions to knowledge and learning, rather than trying to prove how right you are. You know, there’s a lot of time and breath wasted in organizations by people saying “I’m right; you’re wrong. I’m right; you’re wrong.” and defending what they’re right about. The point is, you don’t know, and being right has absolutely no place in a context like that.

Also it’s a good idea to limit the amount of uncertainty you’re dealing with at any one time. Because of it’s too uncertain, you know, if I’m a book publisher and I decide I want to go into genetic engineering — there’re just too many variables. I’m not going to be able to make any sense out of what I’m seeing.

Lastly, you want to be able to codify and then share what’s been learned. Best practice here actually comes from the military and it’s documented in what they call the After Action Review. And that process is one of saying, “What did we intend to have happen? What happened? Why did what happen happen? What are some lessons learned for next time?” The principle here is have some way of talking about intelligent failures that allow you to go after them in a less fearful way than if you go after them with the typical corporate mindset.

Rita McGrath is the faculty director of Columbia Business School’s Executive Education programs Leading Strategic Growth and Change and Mastering Corporate Entrepreneurship (Online).

About the researcher

Rita McGrath

Rita Gunther McGrath, a Professor at Columbia Business School, is regarded as one of the world’s top experts on strategy and innovation...

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