As a keynote speaker and futurist trend forecaster for Fortune 500 brands, I’m routinely asked to identify which emerging trends and happenings will define the shape of tomorrow’s business world. Although I don't possess psychic powers, like many executive leaders, I largely do this by subscribing to a core philosophy of former CEO and chairman of GE Jack Welch: That the ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate source of competitive advantage. To fail fast and fail often is a key principle that I wholeheartedly encourage businesses of every size to embrace.
After all, given how quickly today’s business world evolves, and how often and unexpectedly disruption can occur, you’re never going to accurately predict which particular path the future will take 100% of the time, so why bother trying? Instead, when crafting your business plan, I recommend charting a general strategic direction, and following a tactical approach championed by startups the world over—learning through systematic and routine trial-and-error and pivoting frequently and cleverly if you want to steadily and surely keep propelling yourself closer towards success.
As I discovered while researching my best-selling book, Make Change Work for You, nine out of ten businesses actually succeed using a different business strategy than the one they initially envisioned. If our ability to predict new developments and plot out surefire strategies for market success is far from guaranteed, it’s often better to play a broader portfolio of small, smart, cost-effective strategic bets in business, with an eye towards repurposing resources and leveraging insights gained from these efforts in new and novel ways as situations demand.
For example, say you’re a software startup. Does it really make sense to spend millions building an app whose success ultimately hinges on convincing audiences to try it instead of first building a promotional website and seeing if you can get anyone to tap on a download button? Likewise, if you’re in the business of manufacturing new products, is it truly wise to spend months assembling and building out inventory at high cost vs. conducting some brief market tests to see if anyone will pay for your solutions—and just how much they’re likely to end up ordering? I’d argue that a better approach would instead be to conduct targeted business experiments—and experiments seldom work on their first try.
When you put yourself in the habit of failing fast and failing often, you’ll also put yourself in the habit of getting better about finding multiple ways to win from every choice you make in the long run—even if it doesn’t produce an immediate financial payoff.
Even if you do find that your initial efforts meet with success, don’t forget: Customer tastes can change frequently, new competitors are constantly emerging, and a sudden unexpected event (say, a global pandemic) can completely upend even the best-laid business plans. As a result, today’s most successful companies tend to not necessarily be those that are more capable or visionary— rather, they're the ones that are more flexible and resilient.
You can improve your own organization’s grit by learning to fail fast and often and putting yourself in a mindset of constant experimentation and learning. If you’re open to change, able to quickly and affordably pivot, and structure every business effort and investment in such a way as to be more elastic, any losses sustained as a result of your efforts become only temporary. And, for that matter, can also be readily repackaged and repurposed to help you bounce right back in the event you should hit any setbacks—meaning there’s no harm in failing fast and often, as it’s just another step on the road to eventual success.
These tips that can help you build a business that’s every bit as capable of rolling with the punches as today’s top market leaders—and, over time, can help you position yourself to turn every potential setback into a win.
1. Design for flexibility.
As business owners and operators, we often tend to tie our organizations’ fate to a single business model or emerging trend. Likewise, it’s not uncommon for us to invest significant amounts of time and capital in custom solutions and strategies designed to support us in these efforts. However, in a world where best practices and trends frequently shift, who’s to say our competitive playing field or industry won’t suddenly change—meaning that you’re just as likely to fail fast and often by virtue of fate as intent. Noting this, the smarter play when pursuing new opportunities is often to instead plan for uncertainty and aim to expect the unexpected.
Case in point: Rather than go all-in in terms of expending time, energy, or funds on new investments, a safer approach is to hold some reserves back and structure your company’s operations and any supporting resources with an eye towards rapid change and adaptation. This may mean having to hedge your bets by investing in the most flexible technology solutions, not the most cutting-edge. It may mean having to conduct pilot programs or limited-run tests in smaller markets before going nationwide with new product launches. Whatever your strategic approach, it’s best to think of it as a way to test the waters and find several ways to leverage results of your efforts (good or bad) as springboards to new opportunity.
As a business leader, it’s important to be confident and committed in your decisions. At the same time, it also pays to be pragmatic and leave yourself a way out in case things go sideways. When you put yourself in the habit of failing fast and failing often, you’ll also put yourself in the habit of getting better about finding multiple ways to win from every choice you make in the long run—even if it doesn’t produce an immediate financial payoff.
2. Budget for change.
Any given business model (and business) is like a car: You can only ride it for so long, and for so many miles, before the wheels start to fall off if you don’t make a point to perform routine maintenance and enhancement—and eventually upgrade to a newer, more current alternative. That means having to plan for tomorrow today, and not only set aside time in your schedule to deal with maintenance activities (those which keep the lights on) but also make time in it to invest in growth activities (those undertaken with an eye towards future learning and expansion) as well.
It’s not always easy to find time to explore a new market, target a fresh audience or give your operating model an overhaul when you’re busy dealing with the day-to-day demands of running a company. But if you don’t set aside 15-20% of your workweek and budget towards experimenting with new strategies and solutions, failing fast and often until you come up with a fresh winner, the future is inevitably going to catch up to you.
It may seem counterintuitive to siphon away precious time that could be going towards augmenting the bottom line today to invest in nebulous growth activities that have the potential to pay off tomorrow. But trust me, short-term gains often come at the expense of long-term wins—you’ve got to keep one eye on today, and the other on tomorrow. I have clients who are constantly introducing new pilot programs and product trials every six weeks just to see what they can learn from it. If your rivals are constantly learning and growing, it’s important for your company to get in the habit as well.
3. Prioritize minimum viable products.
Experimenting with minimum viable product (MVP) theory (wherein businesses are encouraged to produce and ship smaller, less polished solutions that address pressing needs with a minimum of features and effort) more frequently can have a powerful impact on your business. In other words, you can turbo-charge your ability to design, build and roll out new solutions and minimize risk just by concentrating on crafting the bare minimum features you need for testing purposes—then making a point to iterate and grow based on the feedback you get. Apply this method of thinking (rooted in a fail fast, fail often philosophy) and you can not only better rightsize solutions and reduce the cost associated with each new effort, you can also bring products to market much faster and more affordably.
Focusing your efforts on producing the bare minimum solution needed to test a theory can help you conduct a focus group of sorts, and one that helps you bring cash in the door more quickly. It also offers a handy way to source invaluable customer feedback for your initiatives that you can directly incorporate into future product or service iterations.
4. Create a culture of trust and empowerment.
In uncertain times such as these, employees are often hesitant to speak up and share their insights. But frontline workers are often closest to customers—and customers are the #1 most reliable source of successful and innovative new ideas today. Losing your team’s input potentially means losing out on one of the most powerful sources of insight your company can ever draw on. Teaching them to fail fast and fail often—and celebrate learnings gained through these efforts—can instead help you build a stronger, more creative, and more innovative organization.
After all, today’s most successful firms aren’t filled with workers concerned with doing everything perfectly. Instead, they’re staffed by teams who aren’t afraid to try and fail, to learn from these efforts and to share this information at the organizational level so everyone can benefit. To get good about learning how to fail intelligently, teach employees not to sweep setbacks under the rug, but rather use them as a teachable moment. The key isn’t to avoid failure entirely—rather, it’s to erase the stigma associated with failure inside your company, and to teach colleagues to speak up and share learnings so as to avoid duplication of effort and people making the same mistakes twice.
The more that your company champions a culture in which people feel comfortable volunteering their feedback and input, stepping out of their comfort zone and taking chances, the more successful you can ultimately be.
5. Don’t be afraid to fall flat.
Everyone wants to be risk-free in today’s business environment. Instead, the most effective companies and leaders make a point to be risk-averse. After all, if you think about it, doing the same thing over and over in a constantly changing business world is a surefire recipe for disaster. The key to finding success in such a disruptive environment isn’t to avoid risk entirely, but rather to take more risks, not fewer, albeit of the intelligent and calculated kind—and disrupt yourself before others get around to doing it for you.
Ask yourself: Could other audiences, industries or verticals benefit from the solutions that you offer? Are you currently doing in three steps what could be done in one? And are there additional ways you could repackage, represent or reengineer your offerings to better resonate with your customers? Remember, evolutionary changes (simple, quick pivots) can be every bit as powerful at helping you achieve big wins in business as revolutionary changes (game-changing innovations)— and you’re likely to achieve them far more frequently and consistently over time.
Countless off-the-shelf technology tools and pay-as-you-go services can help you cost effectively test drive new ideas in hours and do so for pennies on the dollar. You don’t have to risk much (let alone jeopardize your core business) to take cost-effective chances that can pay off big by putting you directly in fortune’s sights in the end.
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