Don’t Fail Fast – Learn Fast

There is a lot of chatter out there about the concept of ‘failing fast’ as a way of fostering innovation and reducing risk. Sometimes the concept of ‘failing fast’ is merged with ‘failing cheap’ to form the following refrain – ‘fail fast, fail cheap, fail often’.

Now don’t get me wrong, one of the most important things an organization can do is learn to accept failure as a real possibility in their innovation efforts, and even to plan for it by taking a portfolio approach that balances different risk profiles, time horizons, etc.

The problem that I have with all of this chatter about failing fast is that does not take into account the power of language. The language focuses people on failing instead of on the goal – learning. My friend Stefan Lindegaard has recognized this and has incorporated learning into his ‘smartfailing‘. But even this approach misses the mark by remaining focused on failure.

When it comes to innovation, it is not as important whether you fail fast or fail slow or whether you fail at all, but how fast you learn. And make no mistake, you don’t have to fail to innovate (although there are always some obstacles along the way). With the right approach to innovation you can learn quickly from failures AND successes.

The key is to pursue your innovation efforts as a discrete set of experiments designed to learn certain things, and instrumenting each project phase in such a way that the desired learning is achieved.

The central question should always be:

“What do we hope to learn from this effort?”

When you start from this question, every project becomes a series of questions you hope to answer, and each answer moves you closer to identifying the key market insight and achieving your expected innovation. The questions you hope to answer can include technical questions, manufacturing questions, process questions, customer preference questions, questions about how to communicate the value to customers, and more. AND, the answers that push you forward can come from positive discrete outcomes OR negative discrete outcomes of the different project phases.

The ultimate goal of a ‘learning fast’ approach to innovation is to embed in your culture the ability to extract the key insights from your pursuits and the ability to quickly recognize how to modify your project plan to take advantage of unexpected learnings, and the flexibility and empowerment to make the necessary course corrections.

The faster you get at learning from unforeseen circumstances and outcomes, the faster you can turn an invention into an innovation by landing smack on what the customer finds truly valuable (and communicating the value in a compelling way). Fail to identify the key value AND a compelling way to communicate it, and you will fail to drive mass adoption.

Let’s look at a quick example of learning faster what the keys to market success are (using Apple):

Apple launched the iPod 2-3 years before they launched the Windows version of iTunes. Apple launched the Motorola ROKR two years before they launched the iPhone. The iPhone came out one year before the AppStore was launched. And finally, it took Apple only about three months to move from talking about the iPad using the tagline “Our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.” to showing people with their feet up, leaning back using the iPad. All of the solution components lists unlocked mass adoption of an Apple solution, but took Apple time to discover and learn. Do you see a trend? Even if you don’t see a trend of Apple learning faster, I’m sure you recognize the up and to the right trend in Apple’s stock price.

In contrast, Microsoft recognizing the Kin mobile phones were a flop and pulling them from the market was a great example of failing fast. The Kin however is not an example of learning fast.

So, please, please, please, don’t talk to your teams about a need to ‘fail fast, fail cheap, fail often’. Focus their energies instead on uncovering how they can instrument for learning and accelerate their ability to learn and adapt whether project phases succeed or fail.

Happy innovating!

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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, embeds innovation across the organization with innovation training, and builds B2B pull marketing strategies that drive increased revenue, visibility and inbound sales leads. He is currently advising an early-stage fashion startup making jewelry for your hair and is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. He tweets from @innovate.

Braden Kelley

Braden Kelley is a Design Thinking, Innovation and Transformation Consultant, a popular innovation speaker and workshop leader, and helps companies use Human-Centered Change™ to beat the 70% change failure rate. He is the author of Charting Change from Palgrave Macmillan and Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. Braden has been advising companies since 1996, while living and working in England, Germany, and the United States. Braden earned his MBA from top-rated London Business School. Follow him on Twitter and Linkedin.




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  1. Jeffrey Cufaude on December 13, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Hasn’t this long been one of IDEO’s mantras? I believe they put it as “fail often in order to succeed sooner.”

  2. admin on December 13, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Thanks Jeffrey,

    Another great example of focusing on failure instead of setting up the organization to learn whether success or failure is the outcome.


  3. Deb Mills-Scofield on December 13, 2010 at 11:55 am

    I’ve been pondering this for a while as well. We focus on 2 binary aspects (such a human thing to do) – either success or failure, not a middle ground. What if we focus, as you express, on learning – one of my frustrations is that people always talk about learning from failure but not as much about learning from success – root cause analysis is generally done when things go wrong, not when things go right – so innovation is an learn-apply-adapt-learn-apply-adapt (or some order therein)…which means iterative prototyping, experimenting as the ‘how’ –


    • R on December 2, 2012 at 3:07 am

      I agree that the fail/succeed dichotomy is too abstract, random and intangible for meaningful discourse — and distracts attention from the more realistic shades of gray that most responsible, serious, constructive business is all about.

      Too often, in the entrepreneurial literature and discourse (and businss/entrepreneurship academia) “failure” or “success” is — explicitly or implicitly — defined in terms of whether or not you’ve managed to create the next Google / Facebook / YouTube / EBay… or other “paradigm-shifting phenomenon.”

      (And yes, just because something’s 20 years old, and shaping an industry, doesn’t mean it’s not a fad; Remember such trend-setting tech-giants as VisiCorp? Commodore? Ashton-Tate? Lotus? WordPerfect? CompuServe? AOL?)

      What stupidity. If our economy was built on such extreme and fluid fad-fascinations it would quickly cease to function, all industry and agriculture would grind to a halt, and we’d all starve to death. We still have electricity and automobiles and breakfast cereal chiefly because of monoliths like General Electric, General Motors and General Mills. Try Tweeting without them.

      And many more companies, whose names you’ll never know, slog ahead making progress in inches, not miles, and stumbling over rough ground that is intractable one day, and easy going the next, as the winds of the economy change. They are not the glamour children of the glossy magazines, nor the subject of trendy books or breathless TV “documentaries.”

      No, instead, they are the people who make sure your grocer has a decent stock of food, your mechanic has the parts to fix your car, the plumber has the right tools to repair your water supply, the pharmacist has the medicines to keep you alive.

      They “innovate” by gradually adapting to changes in their industry, not by creating them. In so doing, they bring the benefits of those innovations to you.

      Without their stable, low-key, no-drama approach to business, your life would suddenly become more dramatic than you would ever care to know.

      Fail fast? The real world seldom answers an entrepreneur completely, clearly and definitively with a quick answer, in response to a quick-and-dirty development. Careful development, long (if constantly varying) marketing campaigns, maintenance and tweaking of product or service quality, and relationship-building, are how these quiet, (often unknown, unsung) bedrock heroes of your daily life keep the American economy — and you — afloat.

      They neither succeed fast, nor fail fast. They just hang in there, and make everything better for everyone.

      They were here before Google, and even Apple, and they’ll be here long after them, too — trudging along the gray zone between success and failure — while keeping us all alive and well.

      ~ R, business consultant

  4. admin on December 27, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Thanks Deb,

    I would just add a few more in there:


    And, you’re right people too often forget to ask “Why did that work?” when they ask “Why did that fail?”.

    We are eventually doomed to failure if we don’t understand why something succeeds, because it leaves open the possibility for someone else to come along and understand the reason for success and thus identify understand the greater potential hidden in the success (i.e. Apple in smartphones) than the people who first achieved the success (i.e. Nokia, Blackberry, Palm in smartphones).

    It is sometimes hard to differentiate between a partial success and a big success.

    You can learn from the partial success of your own efforts or those of others.

    But, you can only do so, if it is one of your conscious product/service development goals.

    So, what can we learn from success?

    I think I’ll write a followup article on learning from success.


  5. Michael Fruhling on December 27, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Hi Braden: I like this discussion a lot and I agree with your assertion. One of the interesting things that I have learned over the years is that the terms “success” and “failure” are not always easy to apply in an absolute sense. Rather, they are often used to define performance relative to expectations…which sometimes can be misplaced. So, the idea of examining outcomes and learnings…independent of the labels “success” or “failure” is very refreshing and frankly, healthy.

    Best regards,


  6. Geoff Zoeckler on January 4, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Our team just came out with a new Tshirt slogan that captures this idea well.

    “Fail: The Birthplace of Brilliance”.

    Solutions do not often come from rational thought – you must lower your guard, let your mind wander, and be willing to fail for true brilliance to occur.

    Planning for failure involves self discipline to disrupt your normal routine, allow your mind to wander, and accept any connections that spark. Corporate structure, standard offices, and 8-5 schedules are barriers to achieving beneficial failure.

  7. Henrik Svensson on September 28, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Great post!
    Related to what I’m writing in this post ( where I point out the missing variable “minimum amount of transferred knowledge” for a project.
    “Sure it is important having the goals of the project described and marked on the map, but for the next project manager, it is more useful to know where not to go than in the distance seeing monuments of past projects having reached their goals.”
    It’s okay to fail and make mistakes – not to repeat them…

  8. libor on February 6, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    -failing to me is more about conscious decision
    -learning may be a trap since it has a flavour of procrastination and info overload

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