What does it mean to "fail fast"?

My son is a recent college graduate and is currently making his way through the right of passage known as "landing a professional job". Using tools like Glass Door, Indeed, and LinkedIn he has been building his lists of pros/cons for various opportunities.

I feel I have taught him well; he has been searching for information on company values and culture to make sure the fit works for both parties.  Assuming my job was done, I prepared to remove myself from his research process. But then he asked me, "Mom, a couple of these corporate values say 'Fail Fast' – what does that mean?" With this question I shift from mom to business coach to give my best explanation of this now popular phrase "fail fast"

The concept of "failing fast" intends to give the word "failure" a positive connotation by emphasizing that the knowledge gained from a failed attempt actually increases the likelihood of eventual success. Fail fast was coined by entrepreneur and author Eric Ries in his 2011 book, "The Lean Startup."

Satisfied with my response, I assumed I could resume my "mom" hat and step back from being a coach. But then he followed up with, "How do you know that you are failing? How does someone new to the business determine failure?"

As he will not be in a technical or manufacturing job (where failure may be more obvious), I explained to him how failing fast can apply to any type of role or work. There are some alarming statistics out there on failure:

  • McKinsey and HBR report that 75% of all change efforts end in failure.
  • Inc.com reports that 96% of businesses fail in first 10 years.  
  • Business Insider reports that 80% of all New Year's Resolutions fail.

You get the picture – failure is not new for anyone. The key is learning to prepare against failure and how to get back on track quickly (or on a new track). If, like my son, you are new to the job market or perhaps have just hired a recent college graduate, use the following questions to ensure you are aligned with your company's expectations:

Question 1: What does success look like?
Don't assume that completion of a task is success. Make sure you understand what success looks like for your role, the team and the overall company. Many do not ask this question in fear of sounding stupid for not already knowing the answer, however If more businesses asked this question my guess is that the aforementioned alarming statistics would not ring so true.  If your boss cannot answer this question, it should cause them to seek the answer so that you both will be aligned to the correct version of success.

Question 2: What metrics will be used to gauge success in my role or task?
One of the best ways to align expectations for each role is through great job descriptions.  The best companies don't settle for generic descriptions which talk about what the job role is at a high level, rather they provide clarity around the specifics of the job expectations. Good job descriptions should contain detailed metrics for the role.

As an example, if your role is as an inside sales representative, you may be tasked with making 100 calls, setting up 5 meetings and going to 1 event each week. The organization that you work for has determined that these tasks will lead to the success desired (as determined by Question #1). If you have any questions about the expected targets and how you will be measured, don't be afraid to ask. You will save yourself and your boss conflict down the road by clarifying this early on. Assuming you know the answers, and in some cases that leadership does, is not always a safe assumption to make.

Using the example above for the inside sales rep, the concept of failing fast comes into play if the tasks you are given are not resulting in expected outcomes. Let's say that the event you were told to go to ends up just being a social setting, where you walked away with no prospects or meetings. Failing fast may mean that you choose a different event the following week. You quickly recover and put a new game plan in place to lead you to the desired success. Don't waste your time going to the same event for two months only to find you are behind on your targets.

Question 3: Are we still on track and aligned?
Hopefully your boss schedules regular check-ins with you to discuss your progress, your concerns, and to ensure everything and everyone is still aligned. I recognize, however, that we do not live in a perfect fantasy world. Organizations are busier now than ever, expected to do more with less, and achieve higher bars. Even some of the best organizational leaders don't get around to regular check-ins. Being proactive is the best solution to this issue. If you are able, schedule time with your leader (a quick 10-minute check in will suffice!) to share your metrics, explain concerns, and paths for course correction. If access to them is an issue, talk to a teammate, test your decision process and move forward.  

Most organizations are focused on outcomes.  Success means outcomes have been achieved. We care that you achieve outcomes, if you have to take a different path to do so, great. Just fail fast.

About the Author

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Jennifer Stanford is a sought-after Trust Coach and the CEO of Emergent Performance Solutions, as well as an author and speaker. Her entrepreneurial spirit, combined with years of practical experience gives her specialized insight into business and psychology.

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