Failure: It’s a feature, not a bug.

Beyond failing fast to failing well

The ever-present Silicon Valley maxim for startups is ‘fail fast’. I get it, it sounds cool, makes failing sexy, and turns something traditionally thought of as bad on it’s head. It’s intended affect is to make failure a part of the process (I think that’s good), and to make sure that you get to the right solution by getting failure out of the way. But I’m not sure it’s enough. Is that the best thing that failure has to offer: “get past it as fast as you can?” I don’t think so. On it’s face “fail fast” seems to mean, “it doesn’t matter how much you fail, just do so as quickly as possible.” That sounds squarely like bad advice.

I prefer this concoction of my own much more: “You’re going to fail, so fail well” (that’s “well” not “whale”). Sure it doesn’t pack the one-two punch of it’s predecessor, but it actually makes far more sense to me. So let’s dissect what I mean.

Failure is Part of the Process

First, failing is a part of the process of starting something, anything, not just startups. When you walk into the process of starting something from scratch with the realization that you will in all likelihood fail pretty regularly, you’re not surprised when it occurs. Not the first time, second time, or thirty-first time. That’s really important. Part of what stops people in their tracks when they encounter a failure is that they’re surprised when it happens. They think of it as a bug, not a feature. But when you position your mind to see it as a part of the process, instead of being counterproductive, you start to see its many virtues. Which leads us to the next portion…

Not all Failure is Created Equal

There is a kind of failure that is defeating, life-sucking, crazy-making, and downright unhelpful. Just because you’re failing fast doesn’t mean you’re failing well. Failing fast implies that failing at the same thing again and again is OK, instead of learning from the failure. It also implies that failure is OK when it can be avoided. What about failures that are due to laziness, carelessness, or even worse: pride. These only become productive methods of failure when one learns from them and doesn’t repeat them or when change is actually enacted. Again, ‘fail fast’ seems to be assuming far too much. Now I have to come clean: I’m guilty of using “fail fast” as a way of thinking. It’s simply far too catchy to not be attracted to it. But when I got into the thick of it, failing and learning, and failing and learning, I realized I wasn’t failing fast, I was failing well.

A Cautionary Tale

Let’s pull a real world example. Uber’s failures, especially that of their founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick, seem to have no end. And boy does it seem that they’ve been doing so as fast as possible since their inception. So where has it got them? Without question Uber is one of the most successful startups in history, valued at almost 70 billion dollars with tremendous growth year over year. It also has them on the verge of complete implosion, with it’s CEO ousted, a company culture that’s as toxic as they come, and a model of failure that never learns and absolutely never counts the cost. I would submit that we now have the best real world example of what failing fast and not failing well looks like in Uber.

Wrap-up

‘Fail fast’ is really just a sexy mantra, not helpful advice. Even my take—‘fail well’—is only slightly better. Like all advice, take it with a softball-sized grain of salt. If you find that you’re so paralyzed by fear of failure that you don’t do anything, then any encouragement toward failure really is a good thing. If you find you’re on your third company and it’s also currently burning to the ground because you were embracing the ‘fail fast’ motto, you might want to stop fetishizing failure.

But, if you’re like most of us and you just want to make sure you’re heading in the right direction just remember, fail well, cause it’s a feature not a bug.