Is it fear of failure or the fear of the lack of absolute success?


What does it take to make a company more entrepreneurial, more agile?

This is a question that I’ve discussed with colleagues periodically from time to time, and I remember having this discussion with a colleague who has established several start-ups.

Memorable, because start-ups are seen as examples of entrepreneurial spirit, agility and speed at its best, and I was curious to learn the difference between his experience versus my own; someone who has worked predominantly in “traditional” business environments and structures her entire career.

In context of our company culture that espouses entrepreneurship (in fact Publicis Groupe recently announced Publicis90, a global initiative to foster it), we got to talking about how the willingness to fail is a critical element of successful entrepreneurship, because it allows risk-taking and speed in decision-making.

The mantra of “fail fast, fail often” is well known, discussed widely in books, forums, reported endlessly on.

But here, I offer a different viewpoint. In this new world of complexity, failures – and its antonym ‘successes’ – need to be viewed as a scale, in shades of greys.

Where in a past, pre-digital, pre-agile environment, you would deem anything that is not a success a failure (in fact, the first definition of the word “failure” in Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to not succeed”),  new ways of working requires us to re-think what it means to fail and succeed.

As a result of digital, businesses now need to move faster than before to keep ahead of the curve. Companies now aim to get products to the market faster so that they are able to shorten the customer feedback loop and quickly improve on their product, as opposed to developing a perfect product over years and have it fail upon launch because of lack of customer testing and feedback. A good example is how Microsoft releases beta versions of its software, although there are many companies now who do it even faster.

In this context then, what constitutes success and failure? When you get a Minimum Viable Product out in the market, the aim is to learn from customers, which implies that you accept that there might/will be aspects of the product that can be improved. So when the product only performs to 80% of its intended purpose, is it a success or a failure? Or 70%? 60%? 50%?

If you launch a communications or marketing campaign, and it doesn’t perform as well at launch, but with rapid iteration, it steadily improves in performance. Was that a success or a failure?

With products, processes and people in permanent beta now, what does the phrase “fail fast, fail often” really mean?

Coming back to the discussion with my colleague, it got really heated, and I was then asked: “Have you failed before?”

That stopped me in my tracks, and that is what got me thinking about what failure means. I have failed miserably before, although those have been (thankfully) few.

But, have I not succeeded before? Yes, plenty of times. Many projects that I’ve run don’t go as expected, especially when your outcomes are reliant on the decisions of others (whether it be pitching to influencers, media, or in my current job working through a dotted line network across business units).  Does it mean that I fail when things don’t go as expected? It just means I constantly adjust until I get the result I need (or at least as close to) with the resources I have.

What if trumpeting this mantra of “fail fast, fail often” is actually inhibiting entrepreneurship and risk-taking? Which individual, investor or stakeholder wants to fail, and fail often at that? What if we reframed it as “Test fast, learn fast”?

Perhaps if we re-thought how we thought about success and failure, and re-thought how we talked about the elements of entrepreneurship, we might get better results.

As always, my thoughts are in permanent beta, so I welcome your views as well.