You’re Not Failing if You’re Learning

You’re Not Failing if You’re Learning

How “learn-fast” thinking can improve innovation and combat fear of failure

“We’re a large organization. We can’t fail fast and break things!”

It’s that type of statement I frequently encounter, so it was no surprise to hear it at a conference in Seattle where I spoke recently: “What if we changed the wording slightly and said, ‘Learn fast and iterate’?” I asked. “Could you do that?” Their answer was a definitive, “Yes”. You might be thinking, “But how is that different?” Let me explain.

A cringeworthy beginning

A number of years ago, I was facilitating a workshop where we developed an approach to organic innovation for a global, multi-billion-dollar technology company. Throughout the workshop the phrase “Fail Fast” had been used a number of times by participants. I noticed that the CTO, who has had an undeniably successful career as an innovator, would cringe whenever someone said those words. Eventually, he asked if we could start using the phrase “Learn Fast” instead. His point was that a counter-intuitive result from an experiment was not a failure, not if you learned something from it. I agree with this point. In fact, in my experience, it is often unexpected results that lead to the most interesting and exciting discoveries.

Learning fast

Our “Learn Fast” culture continued to evolve. We encouraged responsible experiments with clear objectives based upon falsifiable hypotheses. We celebrated learning, regardless of outcome, whenever a person or team:

  • Had a clear objective
  • Articulated a falsifiable hypothesis
  • Executed their experiment well
  • Learned something from the results
  • Adjusted their plan, strategy, tactics, approach, and/or business model as a result

We even, lightheartedly, referred to “failure” as “the F-word” whenever someone used it.

This approach helped us to rapidly explore ideas for both incremental and breakthrough innovation. It also sent a strong signal to everyone in the company that innovation was not only “OK”, but that it was encouraged. Though, it did not stop there.

Relief valve

We found that approaching new ideas for anything – program management, research, even building our incubator/accelerator itself – as an experiment led to tremendous benefits and outcomes. “Let’s run an experiment” became a mantra, and it was a simple way of signaling to others when someone wanted to take an acceptable, responsible risk. It was understood that if we agreed that it was a good idea for a person or team to run the experiment then we were also accepting that the result may not be what we predicted it would be. If that were the case, there would be no retribution for anyone on the team as long as they executed the experiment well, as characterized above. It was amazing how our velocity and results improved, and it did not stop there.

The team’s morale and energy also improved immensely as the Sword of Damocles, which is seemingly ever-present in mature organizations, was forever stored in its sheath. I can tell you that my personal productivity and creativity soared in its absence. Many colleagues made similar, unsolicited remarks to me.

There is one key element in this approach that must be clearly understood in order for it to succeed. It is failure if you’re not learning.

"It is failure if you're not learning."

Let’s run an experiment!

Learning to approach life in general as a series of experiments has improved my own well-being enormously. It removes self-induced pressure, it has made me more curious, and I learn more as a result. Additionally, I believe, I have been much more effective at work, at home, and in my community as a result. So, why don’t you run an experiment and see whether you get as much from this approach as I do.


Photo Credit: Crystal Kwok at Unsplash

Photo by Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash

About the author

George Watt is a Partner at Becker-Carroll, a Converge Company, and is responsible for Strategy and Lean Innovation. A transformative leader, George has spearheaded initiatives that have enabled businesses and global enterprises to address complex technology problems, deliver new business benefits, and drive millions of dollars in savings and productivity gains. He has delivered innovations of his own such as a knowledge base for a neural network-based predictive performance management solution, one of the earliest private clouds (2005), and a lightweight event management agent.

As VP of Strategy for a multibillion-dollar technology company, he was responsible for global scientific research, worldwide innovation initiatives, and the design and operation of an innovative startup accelerator program. He has held many national and global leadership positions and has led global teams spanning North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. George is co-author of “The Innovative CIO” and “Lean Entrepreneurship” and tweets as @GeorgeDWatt.