Are You Willing to Fail Faster?

Originally Published in Materials Management & Distribution Magazine

Thomas J. Watson, Sr. headed IBM from 1914 to 1956 as the Chairman and CEO. Under his leadership the company became an international force in business. By any measure he was a hugely successful innovator and leader of people. Few entrepreneurs have more interesting and thought-provoking quotes attributed to them than Watson. Perhaps his most compelling statement was, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” At first glance this doesn’t seem like the most intuitive way to approach success.

That’s because many of us actively avoid failure. From an early age we are encouraged to be careful and avoid making mistakes. Those of us who have children can probably think of numerous times when we’ve encouraged our kids to take the safe route and avoid risk. I know of one person who decided a hockey helmet was in order for her toddler as he learned to walk! This thinking becomes part of who we are and dramatically affects our lives both personally and professionally.

If we listen to Watson’s advice, we need to take the opposite approach and be willing to fail faster. So what does it look like to employ this kind of thinking in our working lives? First we have to recognize that as leaders we wield enormous influence. Perhaps you lead an entire corporation or maybe a small team. Either way the tone you set and the actions you take shape the culture for your team. In an era where margins are thin for most business ventures it can be easy to look only for incremental gains. This kind of thinking is rooted in minimizing risk and rarely produces breakthroughs and dramatic innovation.

What would happen if you employed Watson’s mantra and regularly met with your team to explore risky innovation, where failing faster was part of the process? Envision a brainstorming session where there are no bad ideas, and your team tackles one of your most significant business issues. You arrange for an interruption-free and off-line location where each person is encouraged to explore boundaryless solutions with no critical judgment from anyone. The whole exercise focuses on building on each other’s ideas. There’s no pressure to solve the problem in a single brainstorming session. And when it’s done you may not have the solution you’re looking for.

What you will have is the beginning of fresh thinking that embraces a new process where failing is part of the road to success. This can lead to new ideas and potential solutions. As you employ the new ideas and make decisions, the resulting outcomes may or may not be successful. In fact there is a good chance that obstacles will rise and you’ll need to make midcourse corrections. This kind of strategy may well lead to failing faster. It’s at this point that your cultural decision to use this kind of thinking will be tested. As failure in a particular area becomes clear, will you quickly regroup and learn from the results or will you fall back into much less risky behaviour?

The fact is that significant innovation depends upon a collective mindset that accepts failure as an essential part of the path to success. The Wright brothers would never have gotten off the ground and Neil Armstrong wouldn’t have walked on the moon without embracing this truth. True, these examples are dramatic. However, the final success of their ventures depended entirely upon thousands and thousands of innovative ideas that didn’t prove successful. Thousands of midcourse corrections and the determination to pursue success were key.

I’ve been fortunate to be part of numerous conversations both personally and professionally over the years that were couched in the desire to pursue success while accepting setbacks along the way. If I were to list some of the ideas that I and others have come up with, many of them would look very suspect. That’s okay. Alongside the crazy ideas that didn’t get anywhere are some pretty interesting solutions to complex problems. Solutions that would have never come to the forefront without a willingness to embrace the idea of two steps forward and one step back.

So can Thomas Watson’s exhortation to fail faster be an effective tool in our daily working lives? I believe it can if we as leaders are willing to adjust our thinking. If we will purposefully set aside some blocks of time to allow ourselves to look for solutions that are truly outside the box. Over the long haul there’s no question we will look back on the successes and see how they were directly linked to embracing the inevitability of failure on the journey.

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