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If “fail fast and often” is such a good idea why do most people not embrace it?

Part of the mantra of the Start up movement is the idea of “Fail fast and fail often” and it has crossed into the mainstream of business thinking and advice.

It sounds great but somehow does not resonate with most of the people I come across, why is this?

I think there are 4 big reasons

Safety, both financial and reputational.

How many of us can really afford a big fail. Most people quite simply do not have the financial resources to meet the commitments to their family and to absorb a big loss. Somehow he stories of successful investment bankers, meaning many 100's of thousands of pounds in cash in the bank, heading off to take a risk as an organic farmer don't ring true for the majority, or the CEO exhorting their people to embrace failure

If there is the one story of the guy at IBM how many 100's of stories do we know of real people we know whose project or project went wrong and were shunted sideways then out.

Failing for most people in most organisations still has negative consequences and people know that.

Personal pride and self image.

A lot of successful people are simply don't like failing. It hurts them in their gut. Rationally they understand it happens, like they understand getting feedback is a good idea, they just don't like it. It threatens their internal view of being the best in the room. The work of Carol Dweck around mindsets is a good explanation of this.

Difference between failing on a judgement call, failing at an executional level or failing at a moral or ethical level.

The recent story around what to do with the bankers from HBOS and Barclays are good examples of this. If we felt that theirs was just a failure of business judgement we would all probably be “OK” with it, annoyed but accepting. But their failure, and it would appear they failed fast and often, crosses into a sense of ethical and execution failure. It appears they did not know what they were doing and they should have known that. The fact that they allowed this to continue means they are verging on the ethical failure.

So when we mean fail fast and often, we predominantly mean its OK to get a business judgement wrong and its OK to reach for the stars and get it a bit wrong, as long as it still succeeds.

Fail with your money or someone else's?

Who a failure impacts also matters. If we fail and it costs us something and it costs our money, that is OK. When we fail and it costs other people their money and their careers to a greater degree than us that feels wrong. The corporate exec who fails fast, gets a big pay off whilst the rest of the business gets laid off is not right.

So the answer to why it feels so working to most people is that it is poor advice outside of limited contexts.
Part of the job of good leadership is to be really clear which context it is good advice for and which contexts it is not.

It all depends!