Different ways to fail

I ran across this great collection of quotes on the importance of failure to innovation:

  • “Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.” – Alfred North Whitehead
  • “To accomplish great things we must dream as well as act.” – Anatole France
  • “99 percent of success is built on failure.” – Charles Kettering
  • “The man with a new idea is a crank – until the idea succeeds.” – Mark Twain
  • “The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” – Thomas Watson, (Founder of IBM)

But are all failures created equal? It struck me that there are many different ways to fail, including (i) failure to act, (i) failure to get it working, and (iii) failure to get it working but learning what might work better and trying again. The last one is my personal favourite. Here they are in a bit more detail.

Failure to Act

The most basic form of failure is not to try in the first place, or as Tim put’s it here failure to really give it your best shot. In some situations, failure to act can have drastic consequences but for the most part we are left with a “do nothing” baseline. Interestingly, Sir Ken Robinson talks (with great humour) about the way our schools have educated the creativity out of us by teaching us to to fear failure. As he says “if you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original”.

Failure to Execute

These are the failures that make headlines. This includes a long line of product failures from Sony Betamax and Microsoft Zune through to laser discs and the apple Newton. And never mind me not winning the lotto last night. Some ideas simply don’t work. Sometimes it’s best to just move on and try something else.

Fail, and Learn

This one assumes that your motives for trying are to learn and discover more about your idea. For business startups, this separation of effort between search and discovery is an essential cornerstone of Steve Blank’s customer discovery. In terms of lean development this is about hypothesis testing your ideas as you “iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works”.


Once you have settled your expectations, your failures are simply learning opportunities. As you incorporate your learnings into the next attempt you simply run through another iteration. You just need to be clear about what you are trying to learn, and what you intend to change when the results come in. Ash Maurya terms this the difference between vanity metrics (results you just look at) and actionable metrics (results you do something about).

My favourite anecdote here is of Tom Watson (founder of IBM and renowned fan of Fail, and Learn).

In the 1960’s, an executive at IBM made a decision that ended up losing the company $10 million. The CEO of IBM, Tom Watson, summoned the offending executive to his office at corporate headquarters. The journalist Paul B. Carroll described what happened next:

As the executive cowered, Watson asked, “Do you know why I’ve asked you here?”

The man replied, “I assume I’m here so you can fire me.”

Watson looked surprised.

“Fire you?” he asked. “Of course not. I just spent $10 million educating you.”



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