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Time to redefine failing in terms of learning

By Katie Plemmons | July 12, 2022

If you want to foster innovation, you need to encourage learning from failure.
Work Transformation|Employee Experience

The term “fail fast” is popular in the world of business, but maybe it’s time to “learn fast” instead.

Failing fast is the philosophy that relies on testing and incremental development to determine whether an idea or solution has value. It’s the backbone of agile product development, where the goal is to make small iterations on a product and test those iterations with users. If the iterations don’t resonate with your user, you then have the option to fail fast and make necessary changes to either pivot or persevere.

In practice, failing fast enables teams to rapidly develop and test products, focusing their energy and funds on the products and features that best solve users’ problems and provide value. So, what could be wrong with the notion of failing fast?

Fear of failure

When I first started to write this, I wanted to focus on the benefits of failing fast and how to create culture of “accepting” the philosophy of failing fast. As I was working on this article, I had the opportunity to listen to an interview with John Bremen, our head of innovation and acceleration, and he said something that reshaped even my own thinking:

“Culturally, in the corporate world there is a fear of failure. Helping clients manage risk, helping clients manage people and being deep technological experts, we strive to be accurate, and this can lead to a fear of failure. If we reshape the culture to replace the notion of failing fast to learn fast we will create a true culture of growth and innovation.” – John Bremen

In my own thinking, organizations needed to focus on creating a culture that allows for failure, which I think is important, but what if we actually need to stop using the term fail fast and shift to learn fast as Bremen suggests. How does this shift open us up to even greater possibilities?

Bremen goes on to say:

“By learning fast we optimize learnings which allows you to move on to the next idea or an evolution of the idea. This actually allows you the space to move on to a new idea. Once you give yourself permission to accept the learning as critical you can move on and open space for the next idea.”

As Bremen said, culturally in the corporate world there is a fear of failure, so how do we shift the mindset to learning? Perhaps part of the reason we fear failure is that we have learned a lot during the testing and we don’t want to “just let it go and move on.” We become invested in what we have learned and the area we are exploring. We need to take those learnings, capture them and put them to use in the next iteration, which may include the next project or the next idea.

First attempt at learning

If we shift from failing fast to FAIL, meaning “first attempt at learning,” we can then take our learnings and make the decision that, as Bremen says “allows you to move on to the next idea and make space.” So, how do we do that?

First we need to create a culture that allows us the space to learn and apply those learnings as an iterative part of the decision making process. If we look at our innovation value chain, that starts with first defining the problem.

What problem are we trying to solve? As we validate the problem with users, we can begin to incorporate learnings immediately to tweak the problem statement and test it. For example, we can start with a problem statement of, “Clients are struggling to attract and retain key talent due to the pandemic.” Then we learn that actually, clients were struggling prior to the pandemic to attract and retain key talent. If we immediately apply this learning and change our statement, we are not only solving the right problem at the right time, but also are taking key learnings and applying them.

Next, we need to continue to bake this into the process so that we can take learnings and apply them to the next idea or project. Creating a system where we can catalog and document the testing process and key learnings will enable us to take them into a future idea or product. If we embed this documentation into our process at every stage and focus on capturing the learnings, we will become more invested in what we learned and how to apply it to future projects.

Overall, failing fast certainly saves us time and money when we do product development and test ideas, but the philosophy falls short in terms of corporate culture (fear of failure) and capturing key learnings. In a recent Forbes article; The Role Of People And Innovation During Inflation And Recession, Bremen said “new ideas and inspirations are best cultivated in an environment where people feel safe to step outside their comfort zone and take risks, and where failing is considered an integral step of learning.” We therefore need to embed in our culture constant testing and learning to make small changes, and we need to create a system or process that allows for easy cataloging of learnings. We need to have a process that enables going back to our learnings for future ideas and solutions.

Learning over failure

Finally, we need to shift our mindset to be focused on learning over failure and embed this into our daily mantra. Organizations need to embrace the notion of FAILing (first attempt in learning) and replace the historical idea of failure. This starts with leadership

  • Accepting and promoting the concept of FAILing
  • Creating a safe environment for colleagues to FAIL, including the reward of FAILing behaviors,
  • Sharing FAILing case studies and giving voice to colleagues who have successfully managed to fail and apply those learnings to another idea

“Most traditional performance management and reward systems fundamentally discourage risk-taking. Employees often are penalized for failing, and the path of least resistance becomes performing their work in tried and tested ways. This mentality is the opposite of what fosters an innovative organization.” – John M. Bremen and Kenneth Kuk, The ‘Sixth P’: Using People Analytics To Foster Innovation.

If we can successfully FAIL, not only do we capture learnings and make necessary changes quickly, we also stop projects at the appropriate time, saving time and money for the business and creating a culture that will benefit everyone.


Director, Innovation & Acceleration
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