Cultivating a Fail Fast Culture

fail fast culture

I recently met with a client responsible for organizational development in the financial services sector who was seeking ideas, information, and input from ImagineNation™ towards cultivating a “fail fast” organizational culture. It caused me to explore what might be some of the key messages that could be sent to people to create permission, vulnerability, safety, courage, and trust for the deep learnings that mistakes and failure provide in advancing creativity, invention, and innovation.

How could developing a “fail fast” culture help organizations survive, flow, and flourish with the high levels of ambiguity, uncertainty, volatility, and instability in the operating environment?

What does “fail fast” mean in its original context?
In software development, the intention is to discover and detect where a potential problem might occur in the overall process to speed it up and minimise time and costs. The focus is on iterating and steering the project to success as it develops rather than creating a lot of software before showing it to the end user – to minimize the risks involved in their acceptance of it. This enables developers to test their products and get immediate customer feedback to ensure that what is being developed is in tune and aligned with what customer’s think they might want or want.

How can failure be perceived as feedback?
Doing this builds customer intimacy and empathy as to what constitutes value in their eyes because feedback, whether positive or negative, is an important enabler towards adapting and responding quickly and continuously.

Learning from this agile way of working, we can see that it takes the “heat” out of “failure” as an emotional word, a visceral experience, and perpetration against someone. Once a vivid picture of success has been envisaged it allows us to potentially reframe failure as “feedback.” That enables people and organizations to adapt, respond, iterate, pivot and continuously improve behaviours, systems, and processes to provide increased value for people and customers.

What is the scientific rationale for failure?
Scientists operate under the basic and rational principle that that get things right by analysing what went wrong.

In his book, “Failure: Why Science Is So Successful,” Stuart Firestein states that “Virtually all of science is a failure that is an end in itself. This is because scientific discoveries and facts are provisional. Science is constantly being revised. It may be successful for a time; it may remain successful even after it has been shown to be wrong in some essential way.”

What gets in the way of applying this rationale?
Growing up in western civil societies and school systems, we learn to see failure as a mistake, as some kind of shortcoming, stupidity or imperfection that we are responsible for and feel ashamed about.

We often feel that we must make excuses for it and apologise for it. In fact, we live in a world where governments fail, relationships fail, businesses fail – so none of these failures are a cause for celebration and could be considered as mere signs of ideas in progress.

According to Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation, “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are the inevitable consequence of doing something new (and as such, should be valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).”

Visceral reactions to failure
When we fail, we unconsciously sink into a series of reactive responses that engage us neurologically and emotionally resulting in a range of irrational cognitive (thinking and feeling) distortions, which usually involves disappointment, confusion, and shame.

We then move away from and avoid solving the problem because of these pervasive un-resourceful states and act defensively, which usually involves laying blame, justification and excuses and even denial.

reactive response

This is the very opposite of what most scientists are programmed to do, which is to get things right by analysing what went wrong. This is often a very useful trial and error and iterative process, and according to Catmull, who has failed more times than we can imagine, it’s important: “To disentangle the good and the bad parts of failure, we have to recognize both the pain and the benefit of the resulting growth.”

Being wrong and judged
When we are made to feel “wrong” (by our own internal processing or externally by others), we know that we both self-judge and that others will make a judgment about us. When we find ourselves being judged in this way, especially for making any kind of mistake, that people make unfair and often generalised and distorted assessment of us and then delete all of our other abilities.

Be-coming the failure
This affects us deeply and in effect, we “be-come” the failure, feel violated, disappointed, ashamed and fearful of its punitive consequences: being fired, disregarded for promotions and special projects, and may even be required to “fall on your sword” at the expense of others.

Taking a reflective stance
When we are willing to take a reflective stance and hit our “pause button” and “work with” what really goes on when mistakes and failures are involved, we can cultivate the self-awareness, self-regulation, and ultimately, the self-mastery to deal with it consciously and constructively.

Uncoupling failure
We can uncouple our own and teach and coach others how to uncouple their fears to support and enable people to “normalize” failure, and develop tolerance to surprises and problems and shift the way we think and feel about making changes and taking risks.

Failure is a manifestation of learning, exploration, and leadership
As Catmull says in his book, Creativity, Inc.:

If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: you are being driven by a desire to avoid it. And for leaders, especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by outthinking it – dooms you to fail.

If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we can make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. This is why I make appoint of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar because they teach us something important: being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them.

My goal is not to drive out fear completely because fear is inevitable in high stake situations. What I want is to loosen its grip on us. While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.

Failing forward
Leaders who enable and empower people to think, feel, and act in this way will advance change, creativity, invention, and innovation in their organization and advance “Fail Fast” agile concepts and create a fearless culture.

If you have experience in a “fail fast” organizational culture, what lessons can you share? Was the company culture fearless or fearful? I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

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Janet is the Founder & CEO of ImagineNation™ a global enterprise innovation consulting, education and coaching company.

She is deeply committed & experienced in enabling people to be the best they can be so that they can adapt, innovate & grow. When they know how to be, think & act differently, they can be passionately purposeful & creatively confident to make the difference they want to make in the world, in ways that are valued & cherished.

Janet has 29 years of experience consulting and leading culture development, change management, leadership and innovation education programs to some of Australasia’s and Israel’s top 100 companies.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.