I have been hearing this phrase more and more, particularly from senior leaders and CEO’s as they give their presentations. It goes something along the lines of “We need to innovate, something around disruption and yes, let’s fail fast everyone. Let’s do it! Thanks for having me and I look forward to a great 2016".

Fail Fast is a great principle and lies at the heart of the innovation process and design thinking. I think that within the walls of Google (where I believe this idea started to initially sprout) this idea sits really well. Outside the walls of Google, I think FAIL may not be the best word. The reason being is so many of us still face the word fail and all the negative connotations that exist with this word. Fear and failure go hand in hand for so many people. When people become terrified of making a mistake in the first place and even more so about making a mistake in the act of doing something creative and looking foolish.

The fear of failure is a huge paralysis on innovation

I see it every day. We are in fear of failure, especially in the corporate space. Just think of every cheesy American war movie where the Big cheese is screaming at his subordinates ‘Failure is NOT an option people!’ and you are about half way there.

The notion of failure is that something didn’t work: ‘an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success’. The problem with the definition is that failure is deemed to be the end game. There is a full stop at the end. The definition doesn’t give us a next step. Now that we have failed, what next? Do we learn, do we debrief, what do we action? What have you we by failing? What have we gained?

And let’s be real, no one wants to fail spectacularly

Try selling a company that has failed every year 10 years in a row and as a rule, the sale wouldn’t go so well. We want to be successful, get paid and achieve great things. If you have read anything about the recent demise of Masters Hardware, you will understand that spectacular failures exist and they have a big impact. If we are looking to develop a culture of innovation where fresh thinking, great ideas and great products are normal, the wording of fail and fail fast may need a tweak.

The very nature of innovation is that there are some unknowns

There has to be. New combinations of ideas has unknowns. When we are operating at the edge of what traditionally has been done, we just don’t know how certain things may turn out. How do we find out? We have to try it and see. The idea behind fail fast is to create something, prototype it, test it quickly on the market on a small scale, get feedback and reset. If it worked as intended, there are great learnings and it can move forward. Failures can be spotted quickly and easily.

If the market gives you different feedback to what you imagined, use this to create something better. As it’s been done on a small scale, the implications aren’t huge and the learning is rich. Great ideas come from failures and you don’t know until you test it. Chefs are some of the world’s greatest innovators and they are experimenting all the time. Not failing. Experimenting. Then producing something really tasty.

So experiment quickly, experiment small scale, experiment often, learn from it, apply it and repeat

Great improvements and learning come from this process. It’s at the heart of innovation and being responsive to the market. Ask your team this question, “If we could experiment with one thing at work, what would it be?” I guarantee it will have a much better response than “If we could fail at one thing at work, what would it be?” Scott Adams said “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Experimenting and learning is a great place to be and essential to innovation. Don’t be scared. No real need for a fluffy white coat however, unless you really want to.

What are your thoughts on the term fail fast? I would love to hear about them.