Business Magazine

Failure: Do It Cheaply and Do It Less Often

Posted on the 21 June 2011 by Alanhargreaves @RechargeToday


Let the “NO” case be heard

How hard is it to temper enthusiasm? Most business advice these days is about how to rev it up, not tone it down. Try standing up at the end of a inspiring and motivating off-site and telling everyone why the amazing new strategy won’t work.

Not a good look.

Yet there seems to be no slowdown in business failures, either at the firm level or the product level. In some ways there seems to be more. The pace of change puts on pressure for more innovation, not less — and more rapid innovation at that. There’s even less time to get it right.

The world is also more complicated. The amount of information and processes out there mean that making mistakes is easier now. There is just too much stuff to take into account.

So how should we approach failure? It’s fashionable to roll out clichés about failure being the way of learning. That’s well and good. We obviously learn from failure. And we need to remember that a single defeat is not a final defeat 

But if failure brings down your business or career in one fell swoop, it’s a pretty expensive lesson.

Learning from failure only works if you can identify that you actually have failed, and if you then diligently work through a post-mortem.

That’s a good process, but what about a pre-mortem?

Introduce the negative

Next time you set up a planning weekend or a brainstorming session, set a table aside for the “no” vote. If there is only you, find a devil’s advocate.

It is very hard to stress test a “great” idea from the side of enthusiasm. Being positive is an admirable attribute, but if you are focused only on making it work, you may end up making something unworkable.

Give some of your smarter people the task of proving it won’t work. Bring in outsiders if you think everyone is just too “onboard” with the idea. See if they can come up with contrary views that simply cannot be ignored.

Build an environment in which people are encouraged to rigorously stress test the proposal and are applauded for their effort. Embrace the uncertainty they create.

The power of uncertainty

It makes it clear that failure is a possibility. Failure is so common we need a mind-set in which it is expected. 

It will also help you fail cheaply. If the process produces enough evidence to suggest it will be no “sure thing”, you are less likely to bet the farm. 

Lastly, it will cultivate broader thinking and open minds. That means the ground might be fertile enough to come up workable solutions to whatever problems are discovered.

Who knows, they may come up with a completely different strategy that makes a lot more sense than your original idea. It wouldn’t be the first time innovation was triggered by the odd ones out.

Post mortems make sense. By all means have one if your idea doesn’t work. But a good pre-mortem could mean you will have fewer of them.


There's more about analysing your strategy in Recharge, published by John Wiley & Sons. You can buy it online here.


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