Failing Smart


By Frank J. Rich

Enterprise models often emphasize quick results. Why? The market moves more quickly today than ever, technology forces disruptive change, and innovations are increasingly more destructive (in the short term) than productive. Even the hint of technology advancement (for its effect on the use model) is often enough to stall sales of it. Yet, to affect a market with a new product idea or advancement takes an average of two years. It’s much the same to establish a new business of most any kind. How, then, do we manage the uncertain task of delivering new products to market and new enterprises of promise?

Many of us build our toys two to three times, an errant determinism that shuns a careful review of the directions. We’re just built that way, especially men. We are experimenters, not unlike Thomas Edison, who preferred to view the 10,000 attempts at an incandescent light bulb as experiments and not failures. Perhaps, his optimism or sheer determination, a rose by another name, was sufficient to chase defeat or at least the blahs, propelling him to achieve his goal of lighting the communities of America inexpensively. And in the process, proving “planned failure” as a model of achievement. Most of the experiments worked, however briefly, and then one remained lit, its filament burning for 15 hours into the darkness.

We are experimenters, and thus fail many more times than we succeed, managing failure more than anything else along the way. In the enterprise world, “willingness to fail” is key. Risk-taking is the underlying principle in enterprise. Not willing to take risks? Work for the post office.  Few succeed without knowing failure. It is the great educator, or so say some of the most successful people in history. Failing “smart” may take the sting out.

More specifically, we are coded by our senses to test things before we plunge: we smell food before we eat it, look before we leap, listen before we jump, taste before we swallow, feel before we engage. It’s how we do what we do; we lead with our senses, gather data along the way, come to consensus with ourselves, then with others, and make an informed decision … to try something, to do something, to move. “Nothing happens until something moves,” observed Einstein.

Simply, threats of a worsening economy turn consumers into simplifiers, saving more of their money to drive expenses down, and many playoff athletes to sub-par performances over the threat of losing so much more than a regular season game. Perhaps, for the same reasons, pro golfers putt more accurately for par than for birdie… at the same distance.

Loss aversion, the initiation of alternative action when threatened with loss, is a simple measure of psychological indices and tendencies to avoid and defend rather than to approach and advance. The negative dominance is so strong in us that a fly will completely ruin the appeal of a bowl of soup we otherwise enjoy. Even the success of marriage, it has been concluded, has far more to do with avoiding the negative than finding the positive. This vertical reality embarrasses the self-reflective among us.

Author, Thought Leader, Entrepreneur, Joseph Jaffe, has narrowed the view of failing fast in his study of startup companies. It tracks my own experience with startups in the technology industry. The practice is so well-tuned that half-lotting and parallel design in the semiconductor sector provide unusual insight into the workability of new technology solutions that success alone could not deliver.

Failing fast now frustrates big business in its efforts to integrate the model. Speed to market is difficult enough. More common to them is extended planning and slow execution. But the practice of planned failure is so common to organizations, its people the source of the natural inclination, that the view of it is recognizably hidden in plain sight.

Frank Rich is founder and CEO of Encore Príst International, an organizational development company that helps individuals and organizations reach their full potential through the practice of effective business fundamentals. You may reach him at, or by phone at 866/858-4EPI.

May 29, 2013 |

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