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Success Is Overrated; Try Controlled Failure

Many companies want to move faster. They want to innovate, challenge and lead. (This even applies to government funded projects in many situations.) Yet, they don’t. They stagnate, fumble and follow. Why is that?

They are overly risk averse!

They spend enormous amounts of time trying to avoid failure. They focus on reducing risk and minimizing cost. As they do so, opportunities pass by, new risks emerge, and greater challenges appear. They are wasting far too much time and money trying to guarantee success when they should be trying to fail — fast.

Bare with me for a moment.

There are degrees of failure. For a business, the worst case failure is filing for chapter 7 (in the U.S.A.) — going belly up. No one wants that. For a project, worst case failure is something like completing the project — late and over budget — only to discover that the software is unusable, unwanted and unneeded. No one wants that either.

Success cannot be guaranteed — not by anyone, following any process, given any amount of time and money. Failure, however, is easy. So why not embrace it, take advantage of it, leverage it.

The key point is to embrace small failures and leverage them as learning opportunities. If you do so early and often, you’ll avoid catastrophic failure later.

There are many examples.

Here are two examples of such small failures at technology companies. Does anyone remember Windows 1.0 or even 2.0? Not really. Windows didn’t catch on until version 3.0. Could it be that Microsoft didn’t know what it’s customers wanted? Did Microsoft miss the target early on?

Absolutely not. Microsoft knew that it needed customer feedback and support from hardware vendors to make Windows a success. It needed to get software into customer hands early, even though incomplete. Microsoft accepted small failures in exchange for long term success.

The same process evolved with the iPhone. The first iPhone couldn’t multitask and didn’t even have copy and paste! Did Apple miss the mark? Of course, not. Apple knew it would be criticized. Apple knew those issues would need to be addressed. It also knew that first mover advantage was more important than perfection.

In a sense, these companies and many others like them, seek out controlled failure. They do enough planning to understand what’s really important. They prioritize activities and deliver fast — even at the risk of small failures.

If you want to be agile, you’ll need to accept controlled failure. If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll need to accept being a follower not a leader. You’re choice?

Updated: August 1, 2011 — 10:21 am
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