Table of Contents
- Why fail better?
- But shouldn’t we be trying to avoid any and all failure?
- How to find value in failing?
- Don’t we already know about learning from experience?
- Is Fail Better just a collection of tools and techniques?
- Where to people go wrong when trying to implement the Fail Better approach?
- Learning and reflection are time-consuming. Why invest in them?
- Do successful people actually invest in learning from their experience?
- How to make the case for running projects this way in an environment where it’s important to show predictable progress towards goals?
- What’s the benefit of using Fail Better’s systematic method?
- Are successful people really talking about their own failures? Why?
- Do these ideas apply beyond work projects?
- What are the limits to failing better?
- Where did the title come from?
Why fail better?
We’re about doing things better, not failing! But the two ideas are linked. Think about it this way: every time you set out to innovate or improve, you run the risk that you won’t achieve exactly what you thought you would. Can you make these surprises useful—or even groundbreaking? We think there’s much scope to shift how projects are launched, executed, and wrapped up so that they serve as testbeds for unearthing and developing new ideas. With Fail Better, we want to help all kinds of people—from individuals launching new endeavors to leadership teams in large organizations—design their work to do more with less. Our goal: equip you with a practical method that enables you to simultaneously deliver the goods and improve both knowledge and practice.
Growing interest in failure tells us that we are on to something. In the US and elsewhere, startups, consumer product firms, and nonprofits have fueled a movement to acknowledge—and even seek—failure. A slew of recent books and articles—not to mention TED talks and graduation speeches—advocate failing early and often. Perhaps that’s because it’s become clear that these days, you can’t always get things right the first time, no matter how smart you are or how carefully you plan.
The way we see it, the advice to embrace failure has grained traction because it taps into a widespread sense that we, as individuals, teams, organizations, and even societies have no choice but to contend with the unanticipated. The pro-failure movement gives people a way to deal with that realization.
But without a systematic method to plan for and learn from missteps and mistakes, supporting failure could backfire terribly. Nobody wants failure for its own sake! This insight motivates our quest to help you avoid wasteful failures and to orchestrate and exploit useful ones. The goal of failing better is to succeed sooner.
But shouldn’t we be trying to avoid any and all failure?
Traditionally, management methods were designed to avoid any kind of failure, large or small. Planning and control dominated many a workplace. All over the world, classroom teaching and training sessions took on the same view. Conventional linear, step-by-step methods shaped both strategy and execution.
These traditional methods no longer work in a changing world. Globalization, climate change, shifting political and financial systems, emerging technologies, and other developments are reshaping the world and the workplace. And things continue to evolve. Amid this complexity, at some point we’re all going to get something wrong.
It turns out, to survive in a changing world, we need to not only plan for possible failure but to seek out how to use small failures—tests, experiments, and explorations that yield surprising results—every time we seek to do things better.
How to find value in failing?
Few would disagree that we should learn from mistakes. Yet usable knowledge for exactly how to do so is often lacking. This is something we take on in Fail Better, drawing on our own experience to describe, explain, and illustrate our toolkit of practical techniques. For example, in the aftermath of a project, systematically look back on what worked, what didn’t, and why, to extract the most useful insights and lessons for your next effort. After-the-fact learning is a powerful tool for fueling improvement that many teams and organization overlook at their peril.
But it’s important to go even further by figuring out how to orchestrate better failures and to be able to extract and act on new insights mid-course. Useful failures can be proactively designed to teach us something new about the world, rule out an idea, or suggest a new direction, in ways that are faster and cheaper than the alternatives.
Don’t we already know about learning from experience?
This idea of testing ideas as you go is not new, as any expert in software design or product development knows—or as anyone trained in the scientific method, process improvement, quality methods, real options theory, or advanced project management will tell you.
But even in these domains, testing and iteration is often confined to the technical. Yet the overall approach could apply to other realms: the workday world of how we plan and run meetings, communicate with others, and make things happen. And in many other fields: finance, human resource management, social impact organizations, publishing, management consulting, philanthropy, to name a few, the idea of iterative testing and innovation has not yet been customized for project teams and embedded into professional practice.
Our solution is a broadly applicable practical method that has been missing: a menu of specific steps that can be customized for everyday work projects in all sorts of industries, including settings where early testing, rapid prototyping, and iteration are not yet common.
Is Fail Better just a collection of tools and techniques?
Along with the tools for planning and learning from experience, to make failure work for us, you need cultivate the mindset and overall approach to effective failure. Draw on the ideas developed in the book and presented on this website (with more to come). As you’ll discover, it’s not all about philosophy: skills, habits, and practices come in to play.
For example, you need to differentiate useful failures from dumb ones. Such knowledge can help you do two important things.
First, it can prevent the failures we all want to avoid: the flubs, mistakes, and catastrophes due to poor planning, inadequate analysis, or insufficient research.
Second, it can enable you to call out and address the avoidable failures when they do occur.
So the message is twofold: first, rethink how you plan your projects to ensure that the failures you generate are useful; and second, as you go, test your ideas, looking for and carefully assessing the feedback at every step. The tools of systems thinking are essential for both, because they help map the relationships between actions, results, and impacts.
Where do people go wrong when trying to implement the Fail Better approach?
A crucial danger arises when people pay lip service to the notion of embracing failure without supporting the right practices, leadership, and culture needed to enable and support effective failures.
In this regard, what managers and leaders say and do is incredibly important. If you advocate our approach but then sidestep a difficult conversation about a visible failure, you risk undermining the entire effort. So, you need to call it when a failure is not acceptable. You also need to protect the investment of time required to plan and learn from failures, and to invest in the right amount of data collection and analysis so that early tests and initial results are appropriately assessed.
Learning and reflection are time-consuming. Why invest in them?
There’s an old saying: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Here’s our take: if you think reflection is expensive, try ignoring the lessons of experience. But perhaps the term “reflection” is leading us astray here. It doesn’t mean navel-gazing. Instead, what’s needed is a data-driven approach to extract the lessons from experience. Individuals and teams may need to cultivate new habits to do this and then support their use, even when things get busy. Managers may need to protect their teams’ time to allow them to both plan and assess their efforts, and also help them get the resources they need to do better.
Building the habit of planning and assessment is an essential first step. Once you’re looking at plans and results systematically, you can figure out how to do it better and correct shortfalls in your data and analysis. But this only happens if you keep checking your results and asking what it means.
Do successful people actually invest in learning from their experience?
While researching Fail Better we found many effective practices, from a venture investor managing his weekly schedule to retain an hour for planning and reflection, to teams that embed five-minute drill-down discussions in their standing meetings. Readers will find varied examples, many featuring MIT alumni and their startups, in our book, and discover how the ideas apply even more broadly—including in U.S. civil rights movement, furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, travel site Kayak.com, and Bangladesh’s remarkable global non-governmental organization BRAC.
How to make the case for running projects this way in an environment where it’s important to show predictable progress towards goals?
The idea of iterating and pivoting may work for a startup, but in large organizations, smooth progress to known milestones and goals often shapes behavior. But the reality is that too many projects plod along as instructed, only to generate results that fall short of delivering the innovation or change that is most needed.
When we looked at the research, we found evidence of the well-known phenomenon of projects running over budget and coming in late, but there was scant data on a problem that we consider equally damaging: projects that check the boxes and appear to meet the set requirements, yet fail to have an impact in the real world.
Oftentimes, even before they wrap up their efforts, the team itself knows that the project they are working on will miss the mark in some way. We sought to address two key reasons behind lackluster performance in such projects: first, the world keeps changing after project plans are set (even if plans don’t adapt); and second, working on the project itself reveals new facts that the original plans did not accommodate. Either way, if teams are not allowed or equipped to shape their work as they go, they risk becoming cynical and disillusioned. The end result is pretty much the opposite of innovation. So we all need to Fail Better.
What’s the benefit of using Fail Better’s systematic method?
First of all, the method is based on research and field testing, so you know you it is grounded in evidence and practice.
Second, we see value in the collective aspect of the idea. As an individual, it’s tough to advocate for the value of your own failure, because it can seem self-serving. Connecting your own attempts to make sense of your failed efforts to a broader movement enables you to deflect some of the negative impacts of embracing failure, and provides a language and touchstones for telling the story of what you have learned from a failure experience. Think of the pro-failure fad in US business: if the “Embrace Failure” project does not develop a systematic and critical approach to analyzing failures—if the notion itself is over-simplified to label all failure as desirable—it, too, will fail. Fail Better is a guide to failing the right way.
Are successful people really talking about their own failures? Why?
Venerated CEOs, famous celebrities, and star athletes tell come-from-behind stories of horrible setbacks that led to happy endings. Accounts of success extracted from the jaws of failure are part of business lore: think of the marketing and product development legends about Post-it Notes, Apple products, Viagra, and New Coke. Today, a growing collection of books advises business leaders to adopt pro-failure philosophies. Entrepreneurs and would-be executives polish their “failure resumes,” nonprofits issue failure reports, companies throw parties to celebrate their flops, and industry groups organize fail fairs, fail fests, and fail cons. Every year scores of graduation speeches urge young people about to enter the workforce to embrace failure. “Failure,” novelist J. K. Rowling told Harvard graduates in 2008, “gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations.”
One reason is its inevitability. The complexity of our social, economic, population, and environmental systems make prediction and ex-ante analysis impossible to get right. Mistakes will be made—in research labs, management consulting teams, C-suites, factory floors, farms, hospitals, school systems, government offices, supermarkets, and elsewhere. So figuring out how to learn from failure is more important than ever before.
There may be another trend that fuels the idea: with the advent of the internet and social media, it’s easier to publish and share a story about failure. You can shape your own narrative when you are writing your own blog, for example. As new research outlets have emerged, there are more options for publishing negative or null results. It’s become both more acceptable and easier to share failure stories.
We think that the ability to tell a cogent and compelling story about what you did, its results, and what you learned—and subsequently acted on—is a key requirement for any professional who wants to lead others. Every change agent who led others and changed the world has done this.
Do these ideas apply beyond work projects?
The Fail Better ideas could apply in all domains—in family life, civic life, business, and science. Here, too, we’re arguing for a more nuanced view of the idea than simply an exhortation to embrace failure. Most people would benefit from investing in our basic approach: plan your efforts so that when you try something new or risky, you think ahead to predict the range of options for what will happen, and put a stake in the ground to say what you expect to come of it. You also need to make sure to gather enough information—and the right kinds of information—as you go, so that you form an appropriate assessment of results. Then, if things don’t turn out as expected, you have your prior ideas against which to juxtapose your experience. Working with others to do this—to lay out your intent, to describe your planned actions, and then to review what happened—is, we think, a core skill for effective action in any domain. Fail Better will tell you how.
What are the limits to failing better?
There are some domains in which failure exacts an unbearably high price. High-reliability organizations operate in these worlds—think of air traffic controllers, transplant surgery teams, and space missions. Fail Better learning is essential in these domains, but is best orchestrated in testing, training, and simulation environments—before the effort goes live. New technologies and methods make virtual failure cheaper and more vivid than ever before, and we see much value in harnessing new tools to craft smart, low-risk failures to spur learning and innovation. And when there are unforeseen operational failures or near misses, such organizations need to invest in effectively mining their experiences for its lessons.
In other domains, a quick operational failure is well worth it. Web- and mobile-based companies are a great example of the latter. With sufficient resources, new ideas can quickly be tested with a subset of the user base, and the change adopted or discarded with a few software changes. In these different environments, there is still great value in learning from failure, but in the more risky situations, failure is embraced in training exercises and simulation tests.
But in the end, failure by itself is not something anyone wants. It’s the success that follows failure that we all seek. So, failure should be embraced only if it enables even better success. We need to add some criteria to define the good failures that teach or reveal something important and discourage those that are simply dumb.
Where did the title come from?
Six words from Samuel Beckett—“Try again. Fail again. Fail better”—inspired our book title, even though its source, Worstward Ho, reflects Beckett’s fascination with futility. Cast as a mantra that turns failure into success, the phrase caught on with tennis players, tech entrepreneurs, and many more, infusing it with an optimism that no literary critic would credit to “the twentieth century’s most depressing writer.”
With Beckett’s words, if not his intent, as our cue, we developed Fail Better to bring a systematic method to the advice on embracing failure, and to spark a more sophisticated conversation about extracting the value of smart failures and preventing the dumb ones.