How many business articles praising the “fail fast, fail often” mantra have we read? Too many to count, but three immediately come to mind.
1. “Failure is no longer something to be avoided and criticized, it is something that can propel a company to future greatness,” writes futurist Dominic Basulto (@DominicBasulto) in the Washington Post.
2. “Do your product or service a favor: Embrace failure and blueprint a plan that affords you the opportunity to do it early and often,” notes technologist Jeremy Jackson (@jeremy_jackson) in Fast Company.
3. “IDEO, a design consultancy, has coined the slogan ‘Fail often in order to succeed sooner,’” reports the Economist. “There are good reasons for the failure fashion. Success and failure are not polar opposites: You often need to endure the second to enjoy the first. Failure can indeed be a better teacher than success. It can also be a sign of creativity. . . . Entrepreneurs have always understood this. Thomas Edison performed 9,000 experiments before coming up with a successful version of the light bulb.”
Taken together, they’re enough to make us want to throw away every book we’ve ever read lauding “success” as a goal.
Which is why we were thrilled to find Les McKeown’s refreshingly contrarian take in Inc. not long ago. McKeown, CEO of the consultancy Predictable Success, challenges the newfound idolatry of the “fail fast” mantra.
“Expressed variously as ‘always be shipping’ or ‘fail fast,’ the people who promote this approach would have us believe that leadership — indeed, the very act of creation — is achieved by mere momentum alone,” he writes.
What bothers McKeown (@lesmckeown) is “the extent to which this ‘fail fast, fail often’ mentality has bled into leadership thinking. It’s sucked (some would say suckered) many leaders into trading focus and excellence for mere motion and mediocrity,” he continues.
McKeown goes on to list the top three mistakes leaders make when they settle for failing fast:
1. Your intuition tells you so.
“You’d think that a nagging, persistent voice saying ‘this is OK, but I could make so much better’ would pull most people up short,” he writes. “Unfortunately, experience tells me this isn’t so. Instead, fueled by the ‘ship early, ship often’ mentality, I see leaders constantly sell themselves, their teams, and their projects short by tossing stuff out the door that isn’t their best work.”
2. You’re fixated on what’s next before you’ve finished what’s now.
“Any leader worth their salt gets excited when a new project hovers into view. The deciding factor is what they do with that excitement. Truly great leaders are disciplined. They park their excitement, knowing they can return to it later — but only after ensuring they have delivered real excellence in the project they’re currently engaged in. Less-than-stellar leaders become consumed by the entrancement of the new thing and are hypnotized into dropping, aborting, or prematurely birthing what they’re currently working on in order to get their hands on that shiny new project — all, of course, accompanied by an intellectually robust post-rationalization.”
3. You’ve left behind a trail of failed or near-failed projects.
“The single most obvious sign that you’ve become a ‘shipper,’ not a leader, is a telltale breadcrumb of failed or good-as-failed projects. These are permanent, visible proof of the lack of discipline required to produce truly great work. This doesn’t just happen at the individual level, by the way. Entire organizations can display this tendency. Compare, for example, Google’s graveyard of canceled projects with Apple’s short list of flops (Lisa, Newton) and you see the difference between an ‘always be shipping’ mentality and true industry leadership.”
If the failures of big companies, particularly those of Apple, interest you, we recommend an article from Wired’s This Day in Tech series. This day in particular — January 19, 1983 — is when Apple released Lisa, “the first commercial computer with a graphical user interface (GUI) — the advance that would finally make computers usable by people with no special training. It doesn’t sell well, but it does get Apple on the right development track, sparks the first of many brawls with perpetual rival Microsoft, and sets in motion the animus between Steve Jobs and John Sculley that would frame the company’s history for a decade.”