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Fail Fast

“I made 5127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So, I don’t mind failure. I’ve always thought that schoolchildren should be marked by the number of failures they’ve had. The child who tries strange things and experiences lots of failures to get there is probably more creative…We’re taught to do things the right way. But if you want to discover something that other people haven’t, you need to do things the wrong way. Initiate a failure by doing something that’s very silly, unthinkable, naughty, dangerous. Watching why that fails can take you on a completely different path. It’s exciting, actually”  – James Dyson


One thing I have learnt over the years, is you cannot know success unless you have failed.

Trial and error are usually the prime means of solving life’s problems. Yet many people are afraid to undertake the trial because they’re too afraid of experiencing the error. They make the mistake of believing that all error is wrong and harmful, when most of it is both helpful and necessary. Failure provides the feedback that points the way to success. Failure pushes people to find new viable and creative solutions. To meet with an error is not to fail, but to take one more step on the path to final success. 

Failing can be scary…

The fear of failure can be crippling to an individual or company. Overcoming this fear can be enlightening, it can open the door to a company culture that embraces mistakes and says it is ok to make them; it is ok…if we learn from them. ‘Fail forward fast’. Tom Peters, the management guru, says that in today’s business world, companies must fail forward fast. What he means is that the way we learn is by making mistakes. So, if we want to learn at a faster pace, we must make mistakes at a faster pace. The key is that you must learn from the mistakes you make so you don’t repeat them.

It is impossible to run an organisation without making a lot of mistakes. Innovation always entails failure.  Most new products and companies don’t survive.  And if you want creativity without failure, you are crazy.  It is also impossible to learn something new without making mistakes. 

Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh tweeted this: “$1.6 million mistake on sister site I guess that means no ice cream for me tonight.”

Apparently, an employee had made a mistake while updating the prices on the web site, which meant that for a whole day, no item could cost more than $49.95. Some of their items cost a lot more. Ouch! Now what do you do? In many organisations, a mistake like this would be the starting point for a witch hunt. Who is responsible? How did they screw up? What would be an appropriate punishment? But this is not how they do business at Zappos, Tony Hsieh writes:

“To those of you asking if anybody was fired, the answer is no, nobody was fired – this was a learning experience for all of us. Even though our terms and conditions state that we do not need to fulfil orders that are placed due to pricing mistakes, and even though this mistake cost us over $1.6 million, we felt that the right thing to do for our customers was to eat the loss and fulfil all the orders that had been placed before we discovered the problem.

PS: To put an end to any further speculation about my tweet, I will also confirm that I did not, in fact, eat any ice cream on Sunday night. “

Some top tips:

  1. When mistakes are celebrated, you strengthen creativity and innovation– Randy Pausch, was a college professor who became famous after giving his “last lecture” when he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. In his classes, Pausch would give out an award called The First Penguin to the team that took the greatest risk – and failed. The award is inspired by the one penguin, out of a whole flock up on dry land, who is the first to jump in the water, knowing full well that there may be predators just below the surface. That penguin runs a risk but if no one jumps in first, the whole flock will starve on land.
  2. Failure often opens new doors– Failure is often the path to new, exciting opportunities that wouldn’t have appeared otherwise. Closing your eyes to failure means closing your eyes to these opportunities.
  3. Don’t take failure personally–  Failure is about behaviour, outcomes, and results. Failure is not a personality characteristic. Although what you do may not give you the result you wanted, it doesn’t mean you are a failure.
  4. Do things differently– If what you are doing isn’t working, do something else. There is an old saying, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.” If you’re not getting the results you want, then you must do something different. Most people stop doing anything at all, and this guarantees they won’t be successful.
  5. Treat the experience as an opportunity to learn– Think of failure as a learning experience. What did you learn from the experience that will help you in the future? How can you use the experience to improve yourself or your situation? Ask yourself these questions:
  • What was the mistake?
  • Why did it happen?
  • How could it have been prevented?
  • How can I do better next time?

How does your company handle mistakes? Is it more like a celebration or a witch hunt? What has been your most spectacular mess-up at work so far? How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?



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