Fail Fast

I screw up a lot, always have, always will, but what matters is what I do next.

My first presentation to a Forrester client was a total F-up. I’m not new to speaking, but presenting in the Forrester style requires a specific style, and as trained speakers, clients pay a lot of money and expect very polished ‘performance’.

Here’s what happened: I was out in NY, and I wasn’t fully prepared, I’d only done a half-ass job of rehearsing the presentation. I had the wrong date typed on the opening slide, and the client saw it. Also, I was giving covering for a colleague and doing her speech, therefore emulating her style, and not doing my own thing. Apparently, the client wasn’t impressed, and even suggested I was dressed inappropriately, I’d argue that I was, but the customer is right. The next week, in the de-brief with the account team, I got a 30 minute well deserved earful, and had to sheepishly apologize and sent them an mea culpa email which I hope they forwarded on to the client. Fortunately, the relationship with the client is salvaged, and we continue to do work with them, although I probaly won’t be invited back.

I sadly dwelled on this for a few days, got some support from my colleagues (Josh, Charlene), my boss-boss Cliff Condon was supportive, mentioning to me it was a ‘hard-knock’ a good lesson to walk away with.

So what was I going to do about it? I made a vow to correct this problem: I started to rehearse outloud several times before new presentations (in the car, at home, in the hotel), started to read more materials on how to be a better speaker, and got some internal training and support. So far, I’ve given maybe 30-50 presentations since that ill-fated day, each with good-to-great remarks from clients, I’m confident the things within my control won’t happen again.

So what did I learn? Every company, every website, and every individual is going to make mistakes and fall. What matters is to quickly learn from those mistakes, and improve that it doesn’t happen again. It’s important in the web industry (a rapidly changing one) that we work in environments that accept mistakes as long as they are not repeated again through hard lessons.

The trick is to quickly make mistakes and then rapidly fix them and move on. So my friends, fail fast.

Now back to you, how have you quickly turned a negative (product, feature, complaint) into a quick positive iteration?

  • What I liked best about this post was the commitment to TRY HARDER. To “take the hit,” acknowledge the screw-up, and do better next time.

    A lot of folks might whine, instead. Some think that they are too precious to fail; it is always someone else’s fault.

    But the world’s real winners know that the rough patches are bound to happen; that sometimes, the screw-up will be theirs and, to your point, they just try to “fail fast.”

    I think I’ll show this post to my teenage children. Thanks. 😉

  • One caveat.

    This doesn’t work with if you’re married.

    No matter what you do, you’re always going to be wrong.

    😉

  • The customer isn’t right if you’re there to teach them how to dress appropriately – I mean that. I’m not being sarcastic. I actually ask people to remove ties when they attend my events – I’ve embarrassed people in front of hundreds.

    Fail fast is an old one by the way 😉

  • Thanks Todd. Blogging has been a good test of taking constant criticism.

  • It’s a big mantra in the design world as well, I think it’s Dave Kelly from Ideo who is often credited for the phrase “fail faster succeed sooner”. It’s also very appropriate for the social media space, because lets face it most of us are in a “don’t know what we don’t know” phase or “unconscious incompetence”, the faster we move on to “conscious incompetence” the better 🙂

  • One of the key principles of design thinking. But you were also subjected to the flip of design thinking and that’s ‘safety’ to fail. You pretty much had to cover for it all with emotional fortitude. Not everyone can do that. While we can’t coddle, there’s a little more ‘yin’ needed for that ‘yang’.

  • Paul,
    I made it a habit now to ask clients how I should dress. Surprisingly big insurance companies dress casual, and young hip media companies wanted me to dress conservatively. As such, it’s my responsibility to know my audience, I was at fault

    Paula,
    I had to swallow the fail pill, and it hurts at first. but gets smaller over time.

  • MB

    Good post and good reminder. Taking risks means there is a chance of failure. It’s how you respond and do better next time that counts.
    I need to take my own advice! Been playing really safe for a while career wise because it’s comfortable but no risk, no reward 🙂

  • Jeremiah, this is an excellent post, and I admire that you have been so open about sharing a “screw-up”on your blog. I’m glad you were supported by your boss and others, which is a crucial element of failing fast—otherwise, we often waste too much time healing or gathering our resources after a smack-down by others.

    Failing fast is a key principle of effective creativity and innovation, as Paula points out regarding design thinking. Developing emotional fortitude as an individual is key, and it also really helps if there are innovation advocates within an organization to help individuals and teams cope with failure. Actually, I don’t usually use the word “failure,” because I often find that what we consider mistakes or screw-ups are often lessons we can learn that take us in a new direction we may not have found otherwise.

    I’m glad Todd is showing this post and comments to his teenage children. Learning how to handle one’s mistakes and shortcomings effectively and to not blame others or needlessly pummel yourself is a key to growing up, and a key to succeeding in anything.

    Thanks for this post. You are always a leader on the pathway toward innovation.

  • JP

    For whatever reasons, many corporate cultures don’t embrace open communication about failures – slow or fast ones. It’s a taboo subject for sure. So, as a result, staff are inclined to “cover up” mistakes, rather than discuss and learn from them. That’s too bad – I agree with you…better to acknowledge, then get up quickly after a fall and get on with it. Reminds me of a chapter about Confronting Brutal Facts in Good to Great…Anyway, we were wondering if fear of failure was behind the surprising responses from a recent CMO survey discussed over at Marketing Profs Daily Fix: http://www.mpdailyfix.com/2008/06/marketing_inertia.html IMHO, fear of failure inhibits the natural cycle of progress and innovation.

  • I have actually failed a lot over the past few years but you are right, as long as you learn from your mistakes then you can move forward.

  • Betty Sanchez

    Thanks for the great post, Jeremiah!
    I was just thinking about posting something similar to share my most recent failure which cost me a dream job. Never fun to make mistakes but it is how you recover that will build your character and make you stronger.
    You’ve just made it cool to admit your failures publicly:-)

  • reminds me a lot of Mike Moran’s book, Do It Wrong Quickly: http://www.mikemoran.com/biznology/blog/index.html

    as JP said… many corporate cultures are willing to allow people to fail quickly. Instead, they demand a “never fail” culture instead. The obvious downfall of that culture is that, 1. everyone makes mistakes, so it’s just not realistic; and, 2. it makes everyone risk averse. I’ve seen different variations of that in all current and past employers. Thankfully, I’ve also seen pockets within each situation where I had (or maybe created) the ability to fail fast. So some is the corporate culture, but I think each person has the ability to find opportunities to fail – and learn – quickly.

  • JP

    You’re right, I’m in a company where independent thinking is encouraged and rewarded, but I haven’t always been in places like this.

    Betty, sorry to here about your missed opportunity, I hope you share.

  • Amen to all of this, Jeremiah. One of the things that can really distinguish you in any business setting is to make a mistake, own up to it honestly, and then *demonstrate* that you’ve learned the lesson — which sounds like exactly what you did here.

    First, simply by owning up to it, you’re miles ahead of the immature folks in the business world who somehow think that imperfection applies to everybody but them. Then, by demonstrating improved behavior, an obvious attention to learning new skilss, and so on, you show that you’re truly willing to swallow your pride, change your behaviors, and do what’s best for the business.

    Maybe you’ve managed people who did that. I have, and I can tell you it’s the biggest relief. You think to yourself, “Awesome – I told her about that *once* and now she’s on top of it.” In fact, it’s the sort of thing you report to YOUR boss: “I’m really impressed with Angela – after X happened, I had to sit down with her to go over it, but since then, not a hitch. She’s picked up fast.”

    In other words, you (1) show you’re a genuine human being who (2) wants to get better and help the organization succeed better. What manager in the world *doesn’t* want that?

  • Thanks Tim

    The ramp up rate for an analyst (So I’m told) is about 9 mos. I just hit that mark today, so I’m getting on the right track. A few bumps on the way up, more to come, I’m sure.

  • It sounds like you are describing what Carol Dweck (Stanford Psychologist) would call a “Growth Mindset.” When things go wrong – blame your strategy and try something else. Don’t get caught up in a “fixed mindset” by blaming yourself personally and giving up. She wrote a great book titled “Mindset” (http://www.amazon.com/Mindset-Psychology-Success-Carol-Dweck/dp/1400062756) I blogged about it a while ago: http://edtechpower.blogspot.com/2007/07/changing-your-mindset-part-one.html.

    Motorola used to have a great moto “Celebrate Noble Failure.” We have to fail in order to learn!

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  • Ed

    It’s an inspiring story to share. Sadly, not many are able to do the same. Sometimes I am no different. But the greatest mistake is not in the original mistake itself, but the failure to detect and admit these mistakes, making changes subsequently.

  • This reminds me of a recent twitter of mine (below). I can’t agree and empathize enough with you about failure. It’s the key to success. You know you’re getting better when you fail less.

    “When I talk too much, it’s about stuff I don’t know much about.”

    http://twitter.com/ramseym/statuses/844985274

  • This is great advice for online entrepreneurs, who often agonise over being ready enough to launch a website, for fear of failure. At the Oz IA Conference in Sydney last year, SlideShare CEO Rashmi Sinha shared her thoughts in an aptly titled presentation, “Fast, cheap, and somewhat in control” (http://www.slideshare.net/rashmi/10-lessons-oz-ia).

    Learning to ‘fail fast’ is certainly a worthy discipline to master, and crucial to ongoing innovation.

  • In a moment of clear synchronicity within my own feed reader your article followed this one

    http://www.businesspundit.com/how-failing-helps-you-win/

    Good to see your treating a fail as an experience and moving forward not trying to fight your position and digging down. A good post so thank you.

  • Interesting post Jeremiah. It touches on something I’ve been thinking about and been practicing lately. I now make it a point to “rush into things” instead of waiting for everything to be in place. I figure there will be mistakes no matter what. So it’s best I go ahead and do it. That way I know what needs to be rectified sooner rather than later.

  • Nick

    It’s dangerous to rush into things without an objective and a plan. Your plan however, should include fast iterations. best of luck to you!

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  • Hi Jeremiah,

    As a soon to be 60 year old who is totally out of his field in most situations, and after 2 college courses on public speaking, the Dale Carnegie course, and a short term member of Toastmasters, I’ve learned the only people who really fail are the ones not willing to take a chance. I was Pres. of my student govt. in college and petrified to speak to large groups but you just keep on keeping on and overcoming personal anxiety.

    One of the best lessons I ever learned was the simple statement of “my experience is”. From that point on you are the expert as no one in the world is more qualified to speak on your experience than you are. Sure you will occassionally make a misstatement and you will get some goof ups in your presentation but during those times you have covered yourself by the opening statement as you may be wrong but it’s still your experience.

    Good speakers don’t recite numbers or stats, they talk of living and the situations they’ve faced and how they coped. People want to hear about people and give you so much latitude when you just be yourself.

    bobj

  • I don’t know if ‘fail fast’ is the right advice. Mine is much simpler. Learn from your mistakes. Your doing that so you’re on the right track. http://www.welcometothebeehive.com/site/ten-lessons/

  • Jeremiah,

    I love the openness, I think in this industry especially people don’t want to admit that they make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes are 100% your own fault.

    Owning the mistake is my first piece of key advice. 90% of this world wants to figure out how there is an our for taking 100% responsibility. If you think something is 100% within your control then you can TRULY fail + learn to improve. If you look for an out (I was overworked and didn’t have time to prepare or my boss worked me late and I couldn’t get my stuff in gear) you’ll never improve, thanks for the openness!

  • Good advice Jeremiah. I think I may have overstated it. I just don’t wait until everything’s perfect before taking action. I’ve also been lucky to have been mentored not too long ago by someone in business, and what this person taught me was how to function in situations of uncertainty; how to decide and act when you don’t have answers to all the questions.

  • When I first started Community work at PayPal, barely a few months in, a fairly vocal critic of PayPal and eBay got into a pissing match in the forums. This person, unfortunately, also had a site that got a lot of attention for reporters looking at issues with PayPal or eBay, so I reached out to the party and apologized for my mistake (like you, I had a bad day).

    From that point on, while not always agreeing with one another, we had a very civil relationship. The party also took the time to reach out to us before making negative comments about the company w/o hearing our side as well.

    The important thing: learn from your mistakes & don’t try to make them again:)

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  • Jeremiah – Can I tell you how much your blog post meant to me? Well, it means a great deal. We all make mistakes – it’s what you do afterwards that really matters.

    I received some surprisingly negative feedback on my year-end performance – surprising b/c it came out of nowhere. While the shame of receiving negative feedback is still fresh for me (only a week old…), I can sleep well at night knowing I handled myself professionally and am doing all in my power to address each of the issues point-by-point. I’d love to be able to talk about this, but, so far as I can tell, the company I work for doesn’t have a culture of communicating publicly (even internally) when something doesn’t go well.

    JP has already pointed out above. Not talking about these “fail fast” scenarios helps perpetuate a culture of fear of failure. (Therefore fewer risks, fewer opinions, fewer voices, less innovation, etc.)

    I’m a firm believer in the lessons you learn best are those learned from when you didn’t hit the mark.

    Thanks for this post.

  • Ami we all step in a few potholes, just keep on moving and learn to avoid them next time around.

    If you’re not making mistakes it means you’re not taking risks.

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  • It’s important in the web industry (a rapidly changing one) that we work in environments that accept mistakes as long as they are not repeated again through hard lessons.

  • Oh!…that's great helpful, it's so right to me! Million thanks for the article,

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