Fail Forward

I’m not so much a fan of Seth Godin’s blog as I am of his books (I think the focus in his books is better than the blog which often I find too ethereal). However, I found this post on failure from him to be very good.

Seth writes on the levels of failure that we should have:

FAIL OFTEN: Ideas that challenge the status quo. Proposals. Brainstorms. Concepts that open doors.
FAIL FREQUENTLY: Prototypes. Spreadsheets. Sample ads and copy.
FAIL OCCASIONALLY: Working mockups. Playtesting sessions. Board meetings.
FAIL RARELY: Interactions with small groups of actual users and customers.
FAIL NEVER: Keeping promises to your constituents.

This reminds me of a book I read many years ago by acclaimed leadership expert John Maxwell called Failing Forward (affiliate link). In it, John discussed the mindset and the methods of making failure a positive – to literally ’fail forward.’

I remember being so afraid of failure that I would go to any length to avoid it (even if a project clearly was going to fail, I put an overload of resources in to minimise its failure, which of course took precious resources from other projects), and I’d certainly cover my failures up. One day, if we get time to sit down and chat, I’ll go through the list with you!

The point was that reading Failing Forward, I began to think very differently about failure, and actually began to see it as being part of success. You can’t talk of this and not, of course, think of Google who celebrate failure. In fact they don’t just celebrate it – they see failure as a necessary part of success – which when you think about it is very true. You have to fail to succeed.

Seth’s post, John’s book, Google’s philosophy – they all serve to help us embrace failure and learn from it, rather than fear it. I find, however, than many embrace failure but still don’t learn from it. It’s easy to say “FAIL OFTEN”, but how do you fail often?

Your Leading Thoughts

  1. When, exactly, did you start failing forward? What changed your mindset about failure?
  2. How have you learnt to learn from your mistakes? What methods fo you have in place?

Archived Comments

  • http://radsmarts.com Robin Dickinson

    Scott, I posted this comment on Banksy’s blog recently and think that it is relevant to this discussion.

    Failure is a fascinating topic. Building on your excellent post, I’m actually a huge fan of failure.

    What I mean is this:

    Failure gives me feedback as to what is NOT working, so that I can adjust my approach and try something new and different;

    Failure keeps other out. Many run from the risk of failure – they take it personally. This is especially useful in business, because the more people perceive that it’s a difficult market/project, the fewer people will actually participate. Some of the ‘toughest’ markets/situations have provided me with the most lucrative opportunities.

    Failure keeps you sharp. It heightens your awareness of what’s going on around you – especially opportunities. Keen senses are valuable indeed.

    Failure begs success. The more spectacularly I fail, the more hungry I become for the solution. Failure is like a magnet for better ways – more focus, stronger NO, more careful about the people I hang out with, higher quality inputs etc.

    Failure stimulates creativity. Most of my best ideas have come from persistent, nagging failures.

    Failure energises you. It’s like a spark plug that jolts immediate and continued action.

    I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

    The BIG thing about failure becoming a huge positive force for success in your business and life in general, is NOT to personalize it, but to harness it’s power for immediate, effective and positive change.

    And one more thing…

    Fear of failure is like a disease that spreads creating myths that dope people into lowered expectations about what’s possible. Failure just is! It’s our interpretation of it that is so important.

    Best, Robin

  • http://twitter.com/98rosjon Jonny Rose

    Being a perfect example of first-time success in every area of my life, I am unable to contribute to this discussion (!) However if you want a good case study that feeds into today AND yesterday’s discussion, look no further than the ‘demise’ of Google Wave.

    Yesterday, you spoke of the need to “give it away” and the manifold benefits of “open platforms” – a great example of this is how Google Wave is allowing independent developers to pick through its remains to utilise the different parts of the GW engine build something *greater* with it. Rather than keeping the internal secrets close to its chest, the Big G is in fact giving every one the keys to the castle and “central parts of the code s well as the protocols that have driven many of Wave’s innovations, like drag-and-drop and character-by-character live typing, are available as open source” (source article: http://bit.ly/9lhAsG)

    Regarding today’s discussion: Whether it’s industry bluster or not, morale seems to be remaining high at Google towers regarding where to go next and what to learn from the failure of GW. Already there is talk of GW’s failure aiding Google Me’s success (http://bit.ly/98OoF7) and the optimism across the industry is extending past Google’s sphere of influence.

    Want to see a great and enduring example of ‘Fail Forward’? – Watch Google over the next year!

    :)

  • krusi

    Everything fails sooner or later. You just have to shift reality.

  • malcolm12boxes

    What changed your mindset about failure? : Events dear boy, events.

    How have you learnt to learn from your mistakes? : By finding out what happens when I don’t learn from my mistakes.

    What methods do you have in place?: Stubbornness and persistence moderated with anxiety.

  • / Scott Gould

    Robin

    Once again you bring such a depth to a subject. I love this angle on failure, how it gives you feedback, keeps others out, keeps you sharp, etc.

    Key there is to NOT personalise it as you say. I think that is probably one of the core shifts needed – getting rid of your ego and not making it about you!

    Scott

  • / Scott Gould

    Jonny

    Glad that you’re quickly putting the pieces together and learning… But come on – what are YOUR failures! Give them to me! How did you learn to fail forward?

    Scott

  • / Scott Gould

    How did you learn to shift reality Markus?

  • / Scott Gould

    Malcolm – thanks for these three power points – received and understood!

    Scott

  • krusi

    Shifting reality is quite easy. Sometimes it’s just changing your perspective, looking at things differently. Sometimes it means re-booting with a different mindset, changing your look / brand, shifting your location, having a new focus. Reality, at least your own, and frequently that of those around you, is easy to shape if you have the will, confidence and desire to do it.

  • / Scott Gould

    Thanks for that Markus – helps those here to learn a bit more!

    BTW what is “Krusi”?

  • http://www.comrz.com Markus Karlsson

    Scott, I know it seems a bit far fetched, but I’ve done it a number of times now and it’s worked very well for me, even minor changes in approach have a massive impact, i.e. turn a £50k per month loss into a tidy profit overnight; paying off a £100,000 debt with minimal income. Same thing can work in your personal life. Courage, vision and communication are the keys to the best results.

    Krusi is my Icelandic nickname.

  • / Scott Gould

    I’d like to hear those stories! When can you tell them?

    Scott

  • Alastair

    Hi Scott, I made my views on failing clear a few weeks ago in my blog post: http://www.iambanksy.co.uk/2010/07/go-and-fail-... – Not sure if you saw it but it’s such an important topic I think the more people are made aware of it the better

    :)

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Al

    I must’ve missed that post – sorry! Luckily Robin shared his comments below, and now you’ve shared your link here!

    S

  • JamieLee

    Scott – I’m just learning to fail … with flying colors.

    ;)

    I feel like I’m standing on the edge of the cliff – just about to take that leap of faith, no longer so worried about whether or not I succeed, now more focused on just moving myself to the next place in my life. Ups and downs, good and bad … it’s all part of the journey to the person we are making of ourselves.
    Enjoyed the post and the good vibes it sent. Thanks for the encouragement.
    ;)

  • http://www.getinthehotspot.com/ Annabel, Get In The Hot Spot

    I had a lightbulb moment with my writing when I realised that I wasn’t a writer unless I got some rejection letters. All writers have them, even the most successful authors have been rejected at times. So I started sending my writing hither and thither and soon I built up a wonderful and growing portfolio of rejection emails. This was proof I was a real writer and it helped me get used to rejection because it happens and the more your try the more often you get rejected.

    Then one day someone accepted a piece of my writing. That happens a lot now:)

    I fail a little bit every day but I care less when other people mark me as a failure. Mostly it’s upsetting when I fail to do something that scares me and stand up to the fear of failure!

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Jamie

    Let me know how it goes being at the edge of the cliff! When did you learn to start failing forward?

    Scott

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Annabel – I love this story!

    This is such a head on approach to failure and the kind of thinking that we need. It’s full of faith and victory.

    Just reading your blog at the moment actually

    :-)

  • JamieLee

    I think learning to fail starts when we learn the courage to stand up and say what we think even if we’re not sure it’s right. There are so many “gurus” (How I hate the way that word is tossed around these days!) and experts. It can be intimidating to open your mouth for fear of failing to impress, failing to “get it,” failing to make a connection.

    In my experience, the only way to get past these fears of failure is to be truly and authentically yourself, to own your experience and how you share it with others. After all, you can’t fail at being you & once you’re out there, even if you fail at some things, each failure will make you stronger as you become more and more the person you’re meant to be.

    So, I started learning to fail forward when I started to learn how to open my mouth and speak my own ideas in my own words … even when I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going with it.

    ;)
    At some point you need to stop worrying about whether or not something is going to work and just go for it. I’m at that point.

  • Ben Emmens

    Scott – I think there’s another ‘category’ in here – FAIL FAST!

    When discussing this with colleagues recently we agreed that we often know when a project is failing / going to fail, sometimes in a matter of days, sometimes weeks. But crucially, we shouldn’t be scared by that – rather we should re-group, and either head off in the right direction, or hand it on for someone to breathe new life into it, or if necessary, take steps to humanely put it down.
    The take-away is that we have to learn to fail, and that learning only comes through experience, and with a fair degree of humility. Failing fast can hurt our pride, but it can also minimise painful fallout.

  • / Scott Gould

    Hey Ben

    Totally agree – failing fast is essential – gather your experience, distill it, and minimise damage in order to move on!

    Any particular instances where you learnt this lesson?

    Scott

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