Breaking From the Advice to Fail Fast
There's a myth going around that failing fast is a good thing. Not failing is probably better.
“You dare to fail fast,” read the job description for a leadership role at a burgeoning startup. Pretty stark, and with a meaning that isn’t even clear. We presume this means that we should be innovative, screw up, learn from it and then grow. Somewhere along the pathway through all this failure, we’re also supposed to keep our job or keep our business afloat.
Failing fast still means failing
There aren’t many people or businesses who are truly struggling yet actively celebrating their mistakes. The problem is that failure doesn’t pay the bills. Success does. And for millions of entrepreneurs, failing fast doesn’t provide a game plan for success but an avoidance plan as we shy away from finding real solutions to often very hard problems.
Perhaps there are a few instances in which “failing quickly” is a healthy mantra, say in the instance of a company force-fed millions of dollars in VC capital to smooth over their financial mistakes and repeated failures. If a company doesn’t have enough money in the bank to fail fast repeatedly, we never hear about them or their ideas again.
Most entrepreneurs are not endowed with VC cash, and simply don’t have the luxury of failure.
Catchy quotes won’t save your business
There's a quote from WWII Gen. George S. Patton that drives me up the wall: “A good plan violently executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
OK, Patton, so I’m sending 100,000 troops into “violent execution” because it’s “far better” than next week’s perfect plan? Seems reckless, right? Wouldn’t a moment of pause for strategic clarity be warranted? “Violent execution” is reminiscent of another tired cliche, that “indecision is a decision.” I mean, it’s really not.
This gets twisted further by CEOs who love to talk about jumping off a cliff and building an airplane on the way down. (They stole that line from Reid Hoffman, one of LinkedIn’s co-founders, who popularized it a few years ago.) And I get it. Failures are inevitable as you take risks in business, and the lessons learned from them should be embraced, but when you experience a big failure, perhaps a company-ending one, famous quotes don’t provide solutions.
How to proceed when facing failure
Here’s what I have taken away from my own failures, which have often required more than a quote and a quick dusting-off:
It’s important to communicate with grace and calmness about what may seem like one’s pending failure. We don’t want to create panic in our business, but we need to be authentic and rise to the responsibility of finding a solution if one exists. Closing our eyes to the problem or becoming noncommunicative doesn't help anyone.
It’s also important to refrain from experimenting so aggressively that one’s “violent execution” becomes reckless. There’s a fine line between putting everything you have into new ideas and simply acting like a lunatic who shouldn’t be trusted with a company.
Listen to your gut. I used to ignore my gut in order to appease advisors or to collect damning evidence to make a more perfect decision. Yes, Patton had warned me about this! However, acting impulsively — and yes, violently — was equally damaging. Balance is key. You must put in the time to consider the data and your intuition alike.
Only then can your action plan consist of calculated bets. It’s smart to take risks and to approach your business experimentally, but it’s not smart to embrace failure as if it were the end game or even a necessary part of the process.
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