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Fear of Failing

“Ultimately there is no such thing as failure. There are lessons learned in different ways.” (Twyla Tharp)

The start-up world promotes the idea of ‘failing fast,’ and so many of us have accepted the idea that failing is OK. This gets people’s attention, because we grew up thinking we were supposed to succeed, not fail. It also creates some misunderstandings.

One recent misunderstanding showed up in a study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Research subjects were given a multiple-choice question, asking them to guess how much money U.S. companies lose annually due to poor customer service. Those who answered incorrectly remembered the answer less often than those who answered correctly.

The researchers claim this demonstrates “that it’s really a matter of self-esteem. It just doesn’t feel good to fail, so people tune out.” The authors conclude that, “Our society celebrates failure as a teachable moment … [but] failure did the opposite: It undermined learning.”

I think the authors completely misunderstood the thinking behind failing fast.

So What’s Up With Failure?

First, the study didn’t include anything like a ‘teachable moment,’ because who cares? Failing to guess whether the correct amount is $60 billion or $90 billion (these were the choices the research subjects were given) is not a matter of self-esteem. The research subjects had no skin in the game, no personal interest in the answer.

Second, when you’re an innovator/entrepreneur testing a new product or business – the arena in which failing fast is advocated – you’re generally trying to answer many questions to build a multi-dimensional understanding of your customer and the market. Your focus is not so much on whether the ‘answer’ is really X or Y – instead, it’s on a whole range of qualitative factors that will help you build something your customers will love. That is a teachable moment.

Third – and probably most important – failing fast is really not about failing. It’s about overcoming the fear of failing. Instead, be afraid of inertia – a much greater risk. Fear of failure leads to inertia, causing you to spend too much time and resources trying to perfect your concept before testing it in the real world, with real customers, where real learning takes place. And then, if you’re afraid of failing, you are more likely to rationalize or ‘spin’ results that don’t support your point of view, rather than learning from them.

“There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.” (R. Buckminster Fuller)

Failing fast is about getting real-world learning as soon as possible without labeling the results (or yourself) either a success or a failure. Instead, label the results useful or not, and label yourself a learner.

A Plan for Failing Fast

Here’s what I suggest, whatever you are working on:

  1. Make a learning plan. What are the most important assumptions that you need to test as soon as possible? And what’s that shortest distance between your ideas and your intended customers?
  2. Make little bets. Big bets have big consequences, which slow us down and cloud our judgement. Instead, determine the minimum number of chips you can bet to get the learning you need. This will leave you with more chips for more bets. What’s your learning ROI? How can you generate more learning for less investment?
  3. Realize that the best feedback you can get from the marketplace will include the unexpected – a.k.a. things you would never have thought of yourself, sitting alone in your office. Unexpected results are a gift. What can you learn from them?

So, it’s not about failing, it’s about learning. Expose your ideas to the real world and welcome the feedback. How likely is it that all of your assumptions will be validated? Not very. So what? The only way to fail is to avoid the real world and miss out on the learning it offers.