“In our company, we like to fail fast!”

I hear that expression quite frequently and often in organizations where I think to myself, you don’t like to fail at any speed. You don’t like to fail fast, fail slow. Failure is not really an option in this environment. And I think to myself, oh my goodness. How do the employees feel being on the receiving end of these leadership messages about failing fast when they can count the number of people who failed and aren’t here anymore to tell the story. That’s such a common reason that psychological safety is eroded in an organization. We have these great expressions that, I don’t know, the leaders heard at some conference or read in fast company and they wan to try it in their organization without thinking about how things like that don’t transfer into corporate cultures that are more stage, more bureaucratic, and more conservative.

So what you’re actually saying when you ask people to fail fast – when you’re trying to get a little bit of that mojo from Silicon Valley startups, from design thinking – is that we’re going to try stuff. We’re not going to be afraid. We’re going to learn very quickly from rounds of iteration and prototyping. And well, that’s a wonderful thing and a lot of corporate environments could use a lot more of that.

Lets Call It Learning Fast Instead

But framing it as failing fast is not really going to work in most corporate environments. Let’s just talk about it as learning fast.

  • What could we do to learn fast?
  • How do we rapid prototype?
  • How do we pilot something?
  • How do we try it? A/B it? See what works?

There are lots of ways to learn quickly in a corporate environment that don’t feel quite as frightening as asking people to fail fast. The other big problem with this expression of fail fast is it kind of celebrates failure without differentiating between two very different kinds of failure, one of which you want more of and one you really want to discourage.

The Two Different Kinds of Failure

I talk about the two different kinds of failure as the difference between a savvy misstep and a sloppy mistake.

Savvy Missteps

A savvy misstep is something where you deliberately choose to do something to learn from it. You engage all the relevant stakeholders to make sure you’ve considered the issue from different angles. You prepare for risk in advance. So if something goes wrong, you’re ready to pull the plug or cope with it.

It’s something where you have a process for bringing those results back to the table in order to evaluate “what did we learn, how did it go?” And all of that makes for learning fast with a savvy misstep. Savvy missteps are awesome. “We took that step, we thought about it first, we thought the ice might be thin, and because of that we were holding onto shore. We only got a soaker on one foot. We didn’t go all the way in”. That’s a savvy misstep. When you celebrate noble failures or failing fast, the problem is that those who make sloppy mistakes will say, “Well, I was just failing fast. That’s what the boss told me to do.”

Sloppy Mistakes

A sloppy mistake is something where you aren’t planful about it. Often when we make those kind of sloppy mistakes we’re kind of trying our own thing or half-assing it and therefore we haven’t engaged anybody else. Sometimes other departments don’t even know we’re putting things at risk.

That is a very, very rocky situation. Because these sloppy mistakes are often embarrassing or because they didn’t have a lot of thought in them in advance, we also tend to hide our sloppy mistakes and you can’t learn fast from something you’re trying to cover up. So that’s not useful.

Lose the Expression “Fail Fast”

Differentiating between a savvy misstep and a sloppy mistake is so critical. And when we just use expressions like fail fast, we fail to do just that.

If you want your corporate bureaucratic organization to feel a little bit more innovative, great.

But instead of using the expression fail fast, talk about learning fast. And when we’re communicating about the importance of that, it’s really, really valuable to differentiate between these are the kinds of savvy missteps we want more of, but this is still a sloppy mistake and there’s going to be consequences for sloppy mistakes.

If you want to encourage an innovative culture without really being ambiguous about it, without making people feel psychologically unsafe about, “Which is this? Does this count?” Well, it’s really important to talk about learning fast and to make sure you emphasize the difference between savvy missteps and sloppy mistakes.

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