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Failing Fast – Is It Really Okay?

If you’ve been around corporate America for a while, you’ve probably heard some form of this terminology – “fail fast” or “fail forward.” Rather, the implication that in order to perfect a process or product, you must first discover the ways in which they fail. This may sound like a very strong theory, may even be proven by several documented case studies, but are companies really ready to let their people fail, even if it’s on their quest to success? Thinking back on my own personal experiences with this theory, failing fast has been used more as a tool to fit a narrative, or a sign of resiliency – a powerful story telling technique to showcase a company’s win in the face of adversity. But on an employee level, it was quite the opposite.

A good example of this comes from previous colleagues of mine in a sales organization. Failed tactics to create more leads and reach revenue targets resulted in negative marks on yearly reviews, and in some cases termination. This happened even when employees provided strategic plans, including hypotheses, how and what to test, feedback, and how they incorporated those learnings on their next iteration and follow-up attempts.

So, what does this look like to the employees that notice all this? It seems the only things leadership and the company really cared about in the end, was that revenue targets weren’t met. Now, when it came time to publish overall yearly results, THEN it was “Look where we started, and how we used failure to learn and grow, and ultimately exceed goals.”

I think part of the problem with companies adopting failure as a good thing, is that there are no parameters around what “failing forward” looks like. As a project manager, I see this frequently as a source of project derailment – there was never alignment from the beginning on the overall goal, outcomes, what success looks like, etc. If we start treating initiatives where failure is expected, or dare I say celebrated, stakeholders will feel far more comfortable with the idea of failure and why it’s almost necessary to find success. Here are a few things to consider if your organization is looking for ways to do this:

  • Leadership buy-in is imperative and it should be visible. We all know change can be hard, especially when it’s something that goes against the grain of what we’ve been told our whole lives. An even better way to be transparent when it comes to initiatives like this is to provide the “why” behind it and even better, a leader who can share examples of their own failure on how the pursuit of success shows courage and sets the tone for others to feel empowered to do the same.
  • Incorporate failure as part of the overall project plan. Where possible, carve out the time it will take to test a few hypotheses, identify points of failure, and incorporate learnings to pivot, and test again. When failure isn’t part of the planning process, it often triggers a negative, reactive response. Preparation is key.
  • Identify what failure looks like. Part of the stigma around failing comes from the negative attributes that often lead to failure. For instance, someone who misses deadlines, is rarely present for meetings, never follows through with action items, or simply just isn’t pulling their weight is not the failure we are striving for here and shouldn’t be acceptable reasons for it. Provide a template that outlines the process clearly. It should include things like:
    • What am I testing?
    • What is my hypothesis?
    • How will I test it?
    • What will I do to mitigate if failure happens?
    • How many iterations can I fit in?
    • How will I know my failures ultimately led to success?


The fact is, not all companies are ready for this idea and that’s okay! What’s not okay is declaring it as an expected, celebrated practice amongst your organization, and then punishing people for it on an individual basis. All too often, companies want to be at the forefront of innovation and celebrated as bold disruptors in their industry, but the idea of incorporating failure as an acceptable outcome is just too scary. Something to think about however, is that the companies who truly embrace it as part of their culture and celebrate the wins that come with failure along the way, are most often the successful ones. Finding success is great, but it can be just as easily lost if you don’t first identify your own points of failure. And don’t take my word for it, a certain ex-president himself said:

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
– Robert F. Kennedy

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