Failing Is Learning; Fail Fast to Learn Faster

Daniel Burrus
August 06, 2020

Daniel Burrus

One of the World's Leading Technology Forecasters and Business Strategists
Failing Is Learning; Fail Fast to Learn Faster

It was Thomas Edison, inventor of the lightbulb and other mainstays of the modern world, who said, "I haven't failed, I've just found ten thousand ways that don't work."

This concept is lost on many in the information age, unfortunately. Because of the immediacy with which we receive both positive and negative feedback from our peers now, when we innovate and put something into the world and promptly receive less than desirable results, or it doesn't work the way we wanted it to, we are more easily discouraged than ever before.

Now consider a larger-scale company with a much bigger audience than a small, local business, creating a new product or service that crashes and burns tremendously. You can imagine their resistance to try new things, given that level of pressure.

However, failing is key in every innovative process, regardless of how established you are. First, if you're not failing, you're not pursuing innovation, and when you do fail, rebound quickly and start all over again. This is the idea behind my powerful strategy: Fail Fast to Learn Faster.

Many Failures, One Success

As mentioned above, the immediacy of the information age, coupled with the speed of exponential technological change and digital disruption, creates a solicitude in the hearts of every entrepreneur. "I only have so much time to hit a home run with this creation before someone else thinks of it."

But a Hard Trend that continues to be prevalent in innovation is the statistical interrelationship between failure and innovation--and, further, the value of learning to fail quickly. Studies have shown it can take the upward of 3,000 ideas to produce one product or service that goes on to be a commercial success. It is rare to capture lightning in a bottle instantaneously these days without that same rate of failure of the past.

There's a value of repeated failure to obtain a successful outcome, but because of the exponential change I referenced above, failing quickly is your response to that. Failing fast allows you to move on from that missed shot much sooner so you can get to the next effort, which will yield better results. Refrain from needlessly expending energy and resources on ideas and concepts that certainly don't warrant that sort of loyalty.

Intergalactic Innovation: A Case Study in Fast Failure

Here's a known example of failing fast. Elon Musk is rarely known for his part in creating PayPal during a very brief moment where you had a shot at capturing lightning in a bottle in relatively one take: the dot-com boom of the late nineties.

Although he found success with PayPal, he was unable to repeat that instantaneous result years later with SpaceX or even Tesla. One of the first iterations of the Tesla Roadster was designed to go from zero to 60, and then 60 to 120 by shifting only one gear up. During the testing period, the Roadster model would easily accelerate from zero to 60, and then promptly burst into flames upon shifting to the only other gear.

This delayed the delivery of hundreds of thousands of pre-ordered Roadsters to Tesla's first customer base. Once the issue was resolved, however, Tesla became the leader in electric sports cars.

Later, Musk moved on to SpaceX, with a mission to successfully use a rocket to launch a satellite and then return the rocket to Earth safely to eliminate further pollution of space junk. Failing fast and learning faster by pushing his team to work quickly to find solutions is what led Musk and SpaceX to now hold contracts with NASA to launch satellites; a goal achieved by an uncommon company that any average person would likely have abandoned at the first failure.

One stereotype that many might associate with the fail fast/learn faster dynamic is the type of organization best suited to leverage that strategy. This dynamic certainly holds true with start-ups with a small public presence, but it is not constrained to that demographic alone.

Open Innovation

How can a company more easily fail fast and learn faster when innovating? I have discussed in the past several companies that now open innovation to lower-level employees, transforming their organization into a veritable think tank for improvement. This expedites my fail fast/learn faster methodology exponentially, and increases the significance of the innovation process.

The next time you're confronted with a new idea, product, service or anything that just doesn't seem to be working out, ask yourself: "Would I be better off failing, learning from the experience as quickly as possible and then moving forward?"

If you're ready to see the future and plan with greater confidence, sign up for my Anticipatory Leader Membership which teaches principles such as fail fast/succeed faster and other great mindsets I'd love to train you and your organization on!

Daniel Burrus

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