Is it Really OK to Fail?

This article was originally published on the Lean Startup Co. blog

By Lean Startup Co. Education Program

“Failure is the key to success; each mistake teaches us something.” – Morihei Ueshiba

“Never be afraid to fail. Failure is only a stepping stone to improvement.” – Tony Jaa

“The greatest teacher, failure is.” – Master Yoda

With so many quotes from wise leaders telling us how great failure is, you would think the fastest way to rise to the top of the corporate ladder is to fail all the time. But somehow that doesn’t ring true. Failing all the time at your job will probably only put you on the express train to Pink Slip City.

So why do we hear so often in corporate settings these days that failure is okay? The well-intended message is: It’s better to try than to do nothing. It’s better to aspire to something better and learn, even when those aspirations are not met.

But the problem with the failure lexicon is that it removes all accountability. Surely it isn’t okay to fail because of incompetence, carelessness, or bad judgment. And it certainly doesn’t feel okay to fail when that failure means the company goes under. Knowing this, it’s completely reasonable for some employees to be skeptical when they hear their leaders tell them it’s okay to fail.

Ultimately, the goal of any organization is to succeed. Success keeps companies in business. Success keeps paychecks flowing. And success feels a whole lot better than failure.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” -Thomas Edison

The process of innovation typically involves trying many things that won’t end up working. The Lean Startup Methodology is an efficient way to navigate these failures and increase our odds of success. In the Lean Startup Methodology, each idea is funneled through a Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop where by rapid and lean in-market experiments, we learn how to improve our ideas or whether to abandon them for something else. The Lean Startup Methodology is not about throwing anything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Instead, each experiment involves a thoughtful process of developing hypotheses and proving or disproving them by carefully measuring customer behavior. Learning is the critical outcome.

By emphasizing “learning” instead of “failure,” we can still hold ourselves accountable. After an experiment, leaders should ask the team, “What did you learn?” That learning should be tangible and help move the team closer to understanding how to succeed. A team that’s not learning is simply spinning their wheels.

So next time someone asks you if it’s okay to fail, say, “Yes, but only if you’ve learned something valuable!”

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