Fail fast to succeed faster

The entrepreneurial art of making mistakes

What do Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Milton Hershey, P. T. Barnum, and Donald Trump all have in common? They all went bankrupt before becoming the high net worth entrepreneurs we now know them to be. They all failed. Then they bounced right back. Some of them several times.

We all make mistakes. Failure is a part of life. But what sets you apart is how you react to failure. If you learn from your mistakes, then you’ll do things bigger and better next time. 

If you want to succeed, don’t be afraid to fail

If you accept that you learn by making mistakes, then you must expect to make mistakes. Of course, you don’t want to, but it is a price we must pay to progress in life and in business. We are failing from the moment we are born, and we never stop failing. Think how:

  • A toddler falls over many times before they can walk straight

  • A child tips their bike over before they can stay balanced

  • A teenage boy will cut himself shaving the first time he tries

  • How many people can say they have never accidently gone into the red on their checking account?

Life is full of failures, from which we learn and bounce back. If you’re innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial, then you’ll probably suffer more failures than most. As Ken Andrukow says when discussing the definition of an entrepreneur:

An entrepreneur does not operate well in the status quo. We’re always looking to shift things up.

A consequence of continual shift is failure. The secret is to fail fast to succeed sooner.

How do you fail fast?

Successful fast failure depends upon taking baby steps and learning from each trip, slip, or fall. In other words, rapid iteration to move from where you are now to where you want to be. The rapid but gradual improvement of a process or product, for example.

In a world that is constantly changing, you must keep pace with that change. So, instead of developing the perfect widget, iterate change as you go. Don’t attempt to make something perfect before you release. Instead, make it good, and learn from mistakes as you go. You can take these learnings into your next round of innovation.

Perfection doesn’t work. Apple is an incredible example of this. It has built a loyal customer base, who are always happy to buy the next iPhone release. The new release is never perfect, but it is better. If Apple waited until they had the perfect product, they wouldn’t have sold a single cell phone.

What Apple does is to iterate its products, using feedback as a guide to improve. You can do similar. Take a process or product, and think about how it could be improved, then make small changes, but make them fast. Some won’t work. You dump these, and learn from them. You don’t repeat the same mistake, but you do evolve as a more accomplished risk taker.

4 ways to fail better as an entrepreneur

You must take risks as an entrepreneur. If you don’t, you won’t advance. You will risk becoming complacent and being caught and overtaken by your competitors. You not only need to fail faster, you need to fail better. Here are four tactics to ensure you fail successfully.

1. Be honest about your failures

If you hide a mistake, you’ll never learn from it. You’ll risk doing the same again, and again. It’s crucial that you are honest about your failures, and discuss them openly. Often, you’ll be so close to the failure that you cannot see exactly what mistakes caused it – so be prepared to analyze with the help of others who will be honest with you.

2. Build your resilience to failure

Okay, failure hurts. But the faster you fail, learn, and put lessons into action, the faster you will move toward success. This requires a positive mindset and optimism. Be prepared to experiment, fail, and bounce back. It takes practice, but getting good at failing – and being resilient to it – is essential to entrepreneurial expertise.

3. Manage your time more effectively

Be intentional with your time. “If you are not intentional about time,” Ken says, “you don’t have a plan, and that leads to poor time management. The only thing we have is time, no matter who you are. So, how do you get more value from your time?

First, understand that time is a commodity. You use it or lose it. In all your projects, plan time to fail. This is especially important if you are working on complex projects. By making smaller iterations, mistakes will be less consequential. You’ll fail faster, and move on quicker. But if you don’t plan time to fail, the time consequence of mistakes will be magnified.

4. Don’t be led by your ego

As Matt Lawless told us when we spoke to him about the business of building trust, “If you are pushing towards what you’re trying to achieve, and you feel like you’re making headway I think that is also success.” However, there is no room for inflated egos.

If you have made a mistake, admit it immediately. If you carry on down the same route because your pride won’t allow you to let go and reverse and change course, your mistake will grow, and the consequences will escalate. Be committed to a solution that you have designed, but be prepared to let go if it proves to be wrong.

Help your team fail better, too

It’s crucial that you build a culture in which your team are not afraid of failure either. Allowing them the freedom to experiment with how they work, for example, will empower people to find more efficient and effective ways of doing things. Here are three things you can do for your team to help them be more innovative and creative.

1. Coach Them

 If you wish to lead a team that can manage the business in your absence, then you must give them the tools to do so. They’ll need coaching to learn from their mistakes. Sometimes they may feel as though they are in deep water. It’s your job to teach them to swim.

2. Support Them

Your team will also need support when they make mistakes. Today’s workforce responds to inspiration and motivation, not punishment and rule by authority. Encourage your people to experiment, and ensure they know that they have your full support should things not go as planned.

3. Discuss Mistakes and Failures

Just as you must admit your own mistakes, you should expect your employees to be accountable for them. Only by being open can you encourage an environment in which people will discuss mistakes and learn from them.

Fail fast to fly truer

Here’s a question from Ken: “How often do you think a plane is off course if flying from LA to NY?

Fortunately, you won’t have to think about the answer. Ken tells us that it is 96% of the time.

(There are) always little corrections to bring the plane back on course – somehow it makes it every time. That’s life. We have a plan, a destination, but we’re constantly editing what we do, how it gets done, and our thought process behind it. That’s what it is to be human. You’re always off course, always having to make corrections.

Yes, we’re always failing. But if you can fail fast and correct your course, you’ll get to your destination. Each failure will be a building block to greater success.

Over to you. When was the last time you failed? What did you learn from the experience? How have you onboarded those lessons to improve how you do things in the future? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll try to address your issues in future articles and Black Diamond podcasts.


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