Don’t Worry About Failing Fast, Worry About Learning Fast

Failing fast really isn’t useful unless you have way to internalize the failure and determine what to do next to improve.

In his book, Smartcuts, Shane Snow, writes on the topic and uses the example of the famous Second City improvisation club to help illustrate. Shane writes:

When releasing a new product, a company will spend months, sometimes years, fine-tuning, building up to one critical moment: the launch. Then on launch day the product either is a success or a failure. People buy it and the company makes a profit, or they don’t and the product fails.

The Second City, on the other hand, puts its students on stage in front of live crowds every week. The class I sat in on wasn’t just practicing for the big show in four weeks; they were practicing for the little live show they did every week, the one with a crowd that would give them feedback on their material-in-progress. That’s how in just eight weeks— half a typical college semester— a class can put together a full-length sketch comedy show and it will be extremely funny. They know, because they got the feedback early, and often.

“Speed is an essential part of our game,” Leonard explains. “The rapid feedback . . . it’s non-stop.”

Failing isn’t the point. It is the feedback from the failure and your ability to make adjustments that improve your position.

On the Stratechery blog, Ben Thompson shared a recent example on iterating to make your product better. Ben was writing on the topic of online media vs. print while comparing BuzzFeed and the New York Times. Ben writes:

There is a famous parable in the book Art and Fear that goes like this:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Perhaps the single most powerful implication of an organization operating with Internet assumptions is that iteration – and its associated learning – is doable in a way that just wan’t possible with print.

If you don’t make adjustments that improve your product, failure is just a path to more failure.

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  • Nate Allen

    Joshua,

    Love the message. I think that failure without learning is just hardship. However, both examples you give are stories about failing repeatedly. The learning is simply implied. In fact, in the pottery parable, the students who are encouraged to iterate are told nothing about learning.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on ways to internalize failure and determine what to do next to improve.

    • Nate,

      Thanks for the great comment.

      You are spot on that in both cases the learning was implied and did not go into specifics. I think in the case of the pottery parable, you could speculate that the act of learning is part of the class along with the teacher and other students, Being able to see your end result and those of of your peers would give you the real time feedback necessary to improve.

      The BuzzFeed example is a bit more tangible. Their ability to A/B test content, titles, etc. allows them to quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. They key being that their organization is aligned to support experiments and willing to fail in the short term to reap the rewards of this learning and improvements.

      A lot of companies are not built this way and do not build practices that support.

      Thoughts?

      Thanks,

      Josh

    • David Telleen-Lawton

      Nate,
      I disagree about your characterizing the stories as “about failing repeatedly”. I read nothing about failure in either one of those. For the Second City group, it sounds like you assumed failure, but the story was about getting feedback on the product during product development.

      Granted, the potter story was not about getting feedback from the “customer”, but it still provided a strong point that by engaging with the product (and the implied self feedback) was better than just thinking about the product with no engagement…okay, kind of a stretch, but a great story anyway.

      I heartily agree that the focus on failure is misplaced…”fail fast” is trying to be cute about not worrying about failing as long as you are getting feedback…unfortunately the feedback (learning) part does get overlooked too often.