Executive Education

Failing fast; learning faster

By Nick Street, Associate Director at Pivotal
Executive Education
Published: 10 October 2017

The tale of business failure and the glorious comeback is one as old as time itself. Arianna Huffington was rejected by 36 publishers before her second book was accepted for publication; Bill Gates watched on as Traf-O-Data, his first company, crashed and burned; Steve Jobs was sacked by Apple; Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity and Milton Hershey started four separate companies before he successfully broke into the candy market.

What have these stories all got in common? Critically, they all originated in the United States of America.

While failure is almost a pre-requisite of success in the US, in Europe the attitude is markedly different. Over here we often consider failure as toxic, and something to be hidden away. The word has such negative connotations that, in our region, we’ll go to great lengths to even avoid uttering it.

But should failure be considered such a big deal?

Silicon Valley, for example, has seen its fair share of failures – and even those at the top of the tree have had their fingers burnt by products that failed to sell, or solutions that were not ready for the market – but it is, without a doubt, one of the most successful markets of all time.

If European businesses want to learn from Silicon Valley, the first lesson they must learn is to accept failure.

Failure is not fatal
Consider the practice of software development and the importance of failure in a lean approach to building it. When we build software, we are solving a problem. The first step is to formulate a theory of how to solve the problem, which is tested by building a small amount of code. The code is deployed as a product and user interaction with the software is monitored. These behaviours are analysed to implement as learnings to improve the software.

This cycle continues from stage one through to the last stage, constantly iterating and learning from mistakes and – although we might not wish to say it – failures.

Favouring an iterative approach to technology welcomes techniques such as the plan, decide, check, act (PDCA) loop, or observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop, decision cycles that are at the core of lean concepts. The general idea is that as everyone’s decision-making runs in this same recurring cycle.

The expectation that a product must be ready before it is put in front of users is unrealistic. No matter how large the challenge or problem to overcome is, we must not shy away from what we learn in failure.

The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity
An effective way to begin the process is by breaking a challenge down into smaller and smaller chunks. This allows the developer to see clearly how each piece of the puzzle can be solved. By tackling chunks, you are better equipped to test the overall problem.

The importance of testing cannot be underestimated. We encourage this because the testing process is where the smaller issues can be identified and overcome quickly, before they become more complex and result in a bigger risk later down the line. We also believe that releasing fast, agile iterations of software keeps the cost of change low. The platforms that support agile software are dynamic and the apps residing on it are nimble, allowing them to be easily changed and developed according to user experience and market trends.

Learning from mistakes
Earlier this year, a frustrated customer tweeted Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk about Supercharger spots being used as parking spots when cars were already fully charged. After Musk replied that it was indeed becoming an issue, it took the Tesla team just 6 days to build a new element into the app and announce a new policy that would charge customers a $0.40 idle fee for every additional minute a car remains connected to the Supercharger once it is fully charged (waived if the car is moved within 5 minutes).

Accepting failure as a means to improve and create something better is one of the reasons Silicon Valley has produced some of the most successful technology companies in the world. By changing the way failure is viewed in an organisation, it encourages a no-blame culture amongst employees. Not only will this create a stronger bond between teams, it will mean that when mistakes occur, the focus will be on resolutions rather than failures.