One of the mantras of the startup world is fail fast, and its intent is to test, learn and iterate rapidly. The idea being that the faster you learn what doesn’t work, the faster you can get a successful product to market. There is some evidence that suggests that Technology startups that embrace this are actually more successful.

However, as always reality is more nuanced and if you’re in a mature organisation it’s not that simple.

Failing – whether fast or slow – is complicated

Failure is a loaded word and reclaiming it as a force for good requires deep cultural change. Yet Fail Fast is enticing. In a world where our attention spans are rapidly contracting, we crave the soundbite and anything that seems hard and complicated goes into the TL;DR category.

A few years ago I was speaking with a senior leader who was excited about launching a new product. This product would have been a whole new way of acquiring and engaging customers, however scaleable delivery was expected to be complicated. Thoughtful end to end design work across many parts of the organisation would be required. He was excited about the product but deterred by the long implementation timeline estimated, and the inability to get prioritisation for his idea.

He had heard about the concept of “Fail Fast” and was intrigued but wary, as his organisation had a complicated relationship with failure.

Instead he elected to design a simple experiment to test the idea, at minimal cost. An email campaign was designed seeking expressions of interest from potential customers, and it was very exciting to see a high response rate to the campaign, with over 50% expressing interest. This gave the green light to go to the next stage, which was just enough design work to describe the product to potential customers. Once this rapid work was done, a further email with more specifics around the new product was sent to all who had expressed interest asking them to register for the launch. This time around the sign up rate was 0%. Some changes were made to the language and the design and a further email experiment was run. The registration rate was again 0%.

The leader was disappointed that customers didn’t share his passion for this product, but he was even more excited about what he and his team had learned about experimentation, and went on to introduce this practice across his broader team.

When you focus on failure you take your eyes off possibility

The biggest problem with the focus on failure, is that you are battling human nature and our in built avoidance of failure. So if we’re not going to focus on failing fast, what should we do instead? In my experience it is much easier to drive change when you find a simpler, less contested path. Here are four suggestions that adopt a different approach to the same objective of faster, better products :

1. Focus on experimentation and learning. These words have much less baggage than failure and to my mind, whisper a silent invitation to imagine what is possible.

2. Get curious. Ask what needs to be true for this to be successful and could we design some quick, low cost experiments to test our assumptions.

3. Pay attention to what you pay attention to. Do you reward and recognise certainty? Start to reward and recognise testing and learning. Don’t underestimate the symbolism of recognising what you want more of.

4. Anything that doesn’t work as planned (aka failure) still offers learning. Just because I don’t think that a focus on failure is the best approach, I also don’t think failures should be hidden away. It’s important to openly acknowledge what worked and what didn’t work, and to aim to do better next time. Whether you choose to focus on fail fast, or experimentation and learning, either way requires a learning culture. This can only be achieved through greater transparency.