Fail Fast Or Fail Smart?

In the world of startups, everything is about failing fast. It’s a price of entry, a badge of honor -- even a cultural imperative, inspired by the whole Lean Startup movement.

The practice of being able to conduct quick, cheap and relatively painless tests, experiments or research exercises in order to gain invaluable insights, feedback, solutions to hypotheses and the like becomes vital in order to rethink, close the loop and ultimately “pivot” or change course based on integrating the new lessons into the model.

Does this idea sound familiar? It should. It originates from the very segment that now struggles to understand and implement it in its operations: the world of big business. One might argue that many of these precepts are in fact basic tenets of direct marketing and the “Test. Learn. Evolve” methodology.

Speed to market is a tough enough “pivot” for big business and brands to have to contend with. The basic methodology of corporations involves protracted planning and implementation. Moving quickly is an extreme anomaly, and when it happens, it is often accompanied by tremendous angst, dissonance and back peddling C.Y.A. actions.



Perhaps it isn’t fair to expect companies to have to emulate startups in their speed to market. Learn from them -- sure. Triangulate and triage based on the behavior of fast-growing small business -- why not? But having to shock the system in order to be something they’re not is an identity crisis at best and a psychotic break at worst.

I’m not suggesting we should walk away entirely from the very worthy and important process of speeding up business optimization, especially in a world where consumers are moving at the speed of change. However, it might be better to take a slightly different path in order to end up with the same, if not better, outcome.

Instead of failing fast, why not fail smart? Instead of speed to market, why not focus on speed-to-learnings?

I am reminded of the “fast, good, cheap -- pick two” adage, which might as well apply when conducting quick tests, pilots or experiments. That said, I’m not sure it isn’t possible to hit elements of all three on the understanding that it may be a different kind of “good” – not in terms of the maligned and unresolved “return on investment,”  but perhaps in terms of invaluable “life lessons” about how to move more nimbly in this fast-changing and volatile business environment.  

To get there, there has to be prior agreement on outcomes and the management of expectation of all parties involved and their connected constituencies (read: investors and bosses of startups and brands respectively).

Failure is really only failure when it becomes an absolute. Along the same lines, smart failure is what I would call “good mistakes” -- the ones you make “fast and cheap” and are able to pivot from for use in future programs (note: the assumption is that you will go back and do it again).

These mistakes are also the ones you make before your competitors, and the ones your competitors will be making when you are long gone and miles ahead.

Smells like success to me!

1 comment about "Fail Fast Or Fail Smart?".
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  1. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, February 1, 2013 at 5:47 a.m.

    What about the clients? These experiments are only "relatively painless" to founders. But particularly in B2B, buyers invest significant time in evaluating products and incorporating them into their business workflow. So "failing fast" can be viewed as a psycopathic scheme to burn as many people as possible, as fast as possible. Do you want to be hated like a banker?

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