If You Have To Fail — And You Do — Fail Forward

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly…

For a lyricist, Ira Gershwin was a pretty darn good historian. My bet is he was OK with his failures, too. Sure, he wrote dozens of songs (such as Someone to Watch Over MeI Got RhythmThey Can’t Take That Away From Me [and, of course, They All Laughed quoted above]) that are now standards, but he wrote hundreds more that very few people can recall.


By any objective measure, we would call them failures, and yet as I said, I am sure Gershwin was all right with that. Why? Because the most inventive people are usually the best at failing forward, i.e., learning from what went wrong.

Columbus did, indeed, insist the world was round and then promptly missed America on his first attempt. And, of course, the Wright brothers claimed flying was possible and nearly killed themselves trying to make it happen. But they failed forward and became the fathers of aviation.

(Time for the obligatory Apple reference: Did you know that Steve Jobs was a repeat failure? He launched NeXT Computer—a hardware failure that most don’t remember because he turned it into a software success. Many believe that the failed Newton eventually became the iPhone. Yep, he knew how to fail forward.)

And, of course, Albert Einstein, whose very name we use as a short-hand for describing someone as a genius, was a lousy student. (As were many successful CEOs and entrepreneurs.) He literally failed his way through academics. I deeply wish I had used this reference during Chemistry I. It might have helped Mr. Peters understand my creative take on chemistry.

My point: Failure isn’t fatal; in fact, it is actually REQUIRED for innovation success—as long as you don’t freak out, make catastrophic mistakes or (ironically) fail to learn from it.

You need to accept the fact that you are going to fail if you are going to do your best work, and you need to make sure that everyone on your team—and, indeed, in your entire company—understands it, as well. You need to free them from the innovation-limiting shackles of perfection; don’t let them ruin good with perfect.

Innovation is Iterative

 Great innovation, like great people, typically is not born; it is the result of trial and error. The phrase, “Be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet” is a healthy mantra for most of us—and most of our new ventures.

One reason that’s true is that in order to make a product or service everything it can be, it needs to be repeatedly soft launched with both internal stakeholders and external customers. This means literally sending the idea—be it a product or a service—into a limited part of the marketplace with the full understanding that it will be modified (perhaps extensively) based on how customers and consumers react.

For successful launches to happen, a team must be OK with the premise that they are starting with what some may consider a half-baked idea—one that very well may fail as constituted. You must make this OK. Tell your team that the real failure is fear of launching an idea until it is perfect. (By that time, someone else could have beaten you to the punch, or the market may have moved on. A perfect CD player isn’t going to find much of a market these days.)

To buttress your case, make the following five points:

  1. We’re only right when the market tells us so. Right now, we presume to be right, and our thinking is based on as-good-as-we-can-afford research, history and gut feel. The market will help us see and hear what we can do to be more right (and also help us eliminate all the things our customers—and potential customers—don’t like or don’t want).
  2. We can make any changes quickly. We can simulate years of research data in the span of months once we are out in the marketplace. It is the fastest way to learn.
  3. It has never been cheaper to test ideas. The Internet allows for instant feedback; empty strip malls allow for in-and-out shopping experiences with risk-free short-term leases; technology has made prototyping doable in days instead of weeks; Kickstarters actually let people vote with their pocketbooks.
  4.  It is going to be fun. We’re doing this to learn and improve, not to beat up an idea. To that point, when you hear someone laughing at an idea you have, it usually means that you’ve touched on a raw emotion, which is critical to success. (So there is no reason for anyone to get defensive.)
  5. We will be making our “mistake” on a small scale. If we find out our idea is completely off base, we’re about to save the company millions of dollars and perhaps our jobs because we’re being calculated and pragmatic.

One more point: Be careful of the language that you use when describing your testing process. We often find that words like “prototype” and “beta” come with too much baggage to overcome. When they hear those terms, many people think it means that certain elements of the product (or service) that you are about to test are locked in place. That’s not the message you want to send. Just about everything should be up for grabs. For our people at Maddock Douglas, “soft launch” sends the message that we expect lots of things about the idea to change. But consider creating your own language that stresses the results you are trying to achieve, e.g., iteration phase 3 or “project optimize.”

If your team still resists the idea of iterative soft launches, just remind them that if this approach was good enough for Christopher Columbus, Steve Jobs and the Wright brothers, it is probably good enough for them.

A final thought:

“Whoops, that didn’t work, did it?” This type of statement followed by a giant smile is an everyday occurrence for an Idea Monkey. Failing is just part of the journey and a step toward figuring things out. Do you fear failure or have you made it part of your everyday practice?

First published on Forbes on October 10, 2012.


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