The greatest teacher, failure is.
The most terrifying words in the English language to anyone starting something new are, “fail fast.” In fact, I’d argue that even the people who say them, many times don’t mean them. I’ve seen many a leader say, “fail fast!” and then look at the risk of failure with a great deal of aversion. But I’d argue that many times, in trying to avoid perceived failure we just prolong it. And that’s not avoiding it, it’s actually making it worse.
Before I share a story from my previous experience, I’d like to provide context. I’m currently ramping up a new business, teaching a college class, and raising two active kids with a wonderful husband. My life is full of calculated opportunities to fail in little ways – and that’s a good thing.
In my corporate job, I faced superficially less risk. I was compensated fairly well, I had a stable job, and could count on a biweekly paycheck. But, the amount of time I got to do what I loved – discovering, shaping and sharing VALUE – was diminishing. And, I was giving up time in my life during which I could do more of what I love. So, we decided that the RISK of making a leap was worth it. With that risk though, comes the chance of failure. And I’ve already had multiple small failures – like the time I stopped breathing because I accidentally took down the business homepage (!!!) – but that’s the key…small failures are learning opportunities that contribute to growth.
A parable: Fail fast and learn. Or just draw it out.
Once upon a time, there was a marketing manager who was tasked with launching a product. Looking at the product, and with almost 20 years of healthcare marketing and product development experience, she asked, “but what does it do?” The answer: it provides data. The following few months can be summarized as such:
- Marketing: What will they DO with the data?
- Engineering: It will! The thought leaders say they need it.
- Marketing: Ok. Cool. So maybe it’s an emerging need. Will they pay for it? What economic value will it bring?
- Product manager: We’ve gotta launch it, just give me some messaging. Our early customers will tell us the economic value.
- Marketing: Ok. Can we talk to some early adopter customers to understand what will resonate? Maybe do a pilot so we can price it with value in mind?
- Product manager: Sure. Let’s do a pilot. Here’s a pilot offer.
- Marketing: Hmmmm. If we can’t get them to do it for free, is it really a product? How will we get them to pay for it?
- Product manager: Totally. Because we have to launch it.
- (Non early adopter) Customers: We’ll take it. For free. Because it’s interesting, but it doesn’t meet our needs.
Seems hyperbolic and unrealistic, right? Guess what… this summary situation has happened with multiple products. Really, the same challenge with different product teams. Why?
There was an unwillingness to hear the truth and accept gaps. Gaps were perceived as failures rather than opportunities to learn. And failure was not an option. So failing fast, learning, then pivoting was the idea but not the reality. The ultimate customer need – actionable information – could have been better prioritized and launched with the right type of customer input, and the willingness to get that feedback before so much time has been invested that the concept feels like a product. Instead, team after team falls prey to the sunk cost fallacy.
There are ways around this trap. And that is why failing fast is so important. Think of failure as a teacher in this way. Many times, avoiding failure is just avoiding the opportunity to learn. Quick, small “failures” are really opportunities to learn. Every time you learn, the next version will be better. And demonstrating that you are willing to learn makes people want to learn with you.
At the end of every competitive event for my kids, I ask them the same questions: Did you do your best? Did you learn something? What will you do differently next time? As adults, I don’t think we should be different. Every time we’re on the field…did we do our best? Did we learn something? What will we do differently next time?
Have you stumbled and need help getting back on track? Could you use an innovation coach who has experienced a wide variety of healthcare technology launches and creatively solved sticky problems? Let’s talk!