I am both a business consultant and the co-founder of a technology start-up. The two jobs give me a great opportunity to come face to face with the fact that I am not always great at taking my own good advice. As a consultant I am very good at assessing a situation and providing realistic options for how to get to the desired goal (or how to adjust that goal when necessary). As a part of a start-up I have learned how to be much more empathetic when people tell me they just can’t do something in the ideal way – flexibility is key. But so is slowing down enough to know what is happening around you, and also you have to be flexible in a large enterprise. So the flow of experience and perspective back and forth has been great.
One of the popular mantras in big business today is to fail fast. One of the popular mantras in start-up culture is that failure is not an option. I have not been able to reconcile these two statements and challenge you to try. The truth behind the catchy phrases is this: when you are starting out mistakes can have a much bigger impact than if you have the cushion of success, and that when you are big and well established if you are not willing to try new things you will surely disappear into irrelevance. But I think the reality of both of these statements if put into practice is a mistake.
As a large organization it may take a while to really get energy behind a new initiative. This is true both internally and externally, so it may be that it takes a while to figure out if something is going to succeed. The current measure of judgment if you are public company is quarterly performance. But three months to move a market is not very long. Break it down – three months is twelve weeks – is sixty business days less a few holidays. Even in the age of a video going viral and getting bazillions of views in a few days that fifty days plus or minus is just not much time to determine if you can actually make an impact. Sure if you are in fast fashion that may apply, but not for large consumer goods, business to business sales, services, food products – the list goes on and on, and the fact is pulling the plug on something with just 50 days of market exposure, or even (gasp) 100 days doesn’t give you a whole lot of time to see how something is actually going to perform.
This is the mistake business makes all the time in a fail-fast culture. Perseverance, patience, adjustment – these are values that are lost and ultimately you create an internal sense that you don’t have to really commit to anything because it will probably go away, and an external sense that you just don’t know what you are doing. Both outcomes are bad for business.
Now in start-up world you can’t fail fast because you can’t fail at all, and that’s it’s own kind of mistake (ironically). This is like a bizarre trick question from VC’s, “Is failure an option for your company?” The honest answer is, “well of course.” But honesty is perhaps not valued the way it should be. I say this sarcastically, but sincerely what I think is missing from a ‘failure is not an option’ position is humility. Yes you need to be confident when you are building something new, but confidence and hubris are not the same thing. Confidence should include an honest assessment of a situation, it should include the willingness to ask for help, and it must include the ability to adjust when things are not working.But key to all of these is the willingness to admit that something is not working.
Recently we saw an example of the ‘no failure’ culture in Theranos. The founder would famously say that to admit the possibility of failure was the same as saying you aren’t committed to the success of a project. That is nonsense. To acknowledge the possibility of failure is to acknowledge that you can’t control every aspect of a venture. It is to accept the limitations that come with being a human, a part of a society, and the interdependencies of complex working relationships. When I say that my start-up might not succeed I am not suggesting I am not willing to work hard to make it succeed (literal blood, sweat and tears can attest to my commitment), it is an acknowledgment that I alone am not in control. I need the help of my co-founders, I need resources from advisors and funders, I need people to use the product (please please please download the app CUltr – it’s free), and I need to be open to the possibility that I will make a mistake and then need help to fix it.
We have brought the permissibility of failure to large companies because people are afraid that if they fail at something they will be fired, and trying new things, evolving is how business stays relevant. But you have to actually get there, and doing something fast doesn’t mean you have done it completely, it just sounds good. At the same time we have infused start-ups with an egoism that doesn’t allow mistakes because we want to believe that hard work always results in success. But we need a balance between these two because neither is functional by itself. You have to work hard to succeed, and sometimes even when you work hard you will fail. You have to persevere through doubt, and you have to let doubt inform how you adjust. You have to be willing to ask for help, but you must first admit that you can’t do it all by yourself.
I don’t plan to fail, I work to succeed and I am grateful for all of the help I get along the way because so far in life I can’t point to a single thing that I have done all alone!
Also, really – download the app: CUltr!