Teams Can Succeed Sooner by Becoming Better at Failing

Mar 23, 2015
2 Min Read

Everyone makes mistakes sooner or later, and failure is part of business. But it’s how quickly businesses learn and recover from failure that may determine whether they eventually find success.

Success today often depends on being innovative and testing boundaries, but with that comes the risk of failure. While failure can certainly be an important part of the learning process, it also can bog down projects or processes.

But what if there was a roadmap that used best practices and research to show how to embrace failure better and faster? Would that be a key to competitive advantage?

A new book, “Fail Better,” by Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn aims to show organizations and leaders how to create the conditions, culture and habits to “systemically, ruthlessly, and quickly figure out what works.”

Penn says that the “fail better method” is “is the first repeatable approach that helps managers, team leaders, anyone really—design work to allow for the greatest level of experimentation, risk and learning.”

That is done, she explains, by focusing on three areas:

  1. Launch. The book points out that you don’t want to over plan and set things in stone at this stage. A project should be considered in context, while anticipating outcomes as tied to a series of logical assumptions. This is the time to pull together resources and look at the skills and capabilities each person on a team can bring to the table.
  2. Build and refine. As the project starts to move forward, don’t think of it as a huge beast headed toward a desired outcome. Instead, chunk the work “in such a way that actions elicit critical information that can inform next steps, and that allows for uncovering flaws in thinking and action early on in the process,” Penn says. “When actions are chunked for iteration, teams can build in more calculated risks – allowing for small, fast and informative failures – and therefore opportunities for innovation and insight."
  3. Embed. This is the “most oft-ignored stage based on our experience,” Penn says. “New projects loom before a current project is complete, so teams turn immediate attention to the new task at hand, at the expense of learning. Also, it’s a natural response, if project outcomes are lackluster, to turn energy and attention to a new frontier instead of unpacking mistakes.” In addition, organizations may be more concerned with the unbillable hours that come from “navel-gazing” instead of other work, she says. But without efforts to embed or syndicate, there is a real risk that successes can’t be repeated and failures may be repeated, she says.

Penn adds that the fail better method isn’t easy and requires an investment of time, skill and management. But the results are worth it, she says.

“In the end, what’s harder? Learning too late that costly, avoidable mistakes were made or scaling failure at a level you can afford, and harnessing those insights to drive a better outcome all within the context of the work at hand,” she says. “And there are secondary benefits, too—all this commitment to learning, testing and improving rubs off in the form of professional development.”

Penn says the “fail better” method will work for any team leader, no matter the size or “constraints or culture” of an organization. Because the book provides insights into the research and conditions underpinning the method, it lets managers and organizations customize it for individual environments, she explains.

“Essentially, by our definition, if you are looking to solve a problem, create a novel product or service, organize resources towards a desired outcome or improve an existing approach, you’re engaged in a project— and that project can be a crucible for failing better,” she says.

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