‘Failing fast’ is the way for firms to thrive

It seems an unlikely crossover to link iconic Irish writer Samuel Beckett with the business practices of 2019, but commerce has often taken inspiration from unusual sources.

‘Failing fast’ is the way for firms to thrive

It seems an unlikely crossover to link iconic Irish writer Samuel Beckett with the business practices of 2019, but commerce has often taken inspiration from unusual sources.

The Nobel winning playwright and novelist famously observed of life: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

In modern business parlance, Beckett’s dictum has been shortened to encapsulate a commercial ethos viewed by many as an essential attribute to both the start-up and established enterprise.

By encouraging employees to adopt a more courageous attitude to innovation and ideas, companies and organisations are fostering a “fail fast” culture to better compete in the competitive marketplace of today — an environment where failure is an integral cog in the machinery of success.

On any given day, business will produce a myriad of ideas, some generated by teamwork, others from individual light bulb moments.

But while every company awaits the one great idea that will transform their outlook, the reality is that only a select few will achieve this elevated stature.

When an idea that might have seemed a good bet on a Monday is proven a dud by Friday, the company or team needs to change course quickly and move on.

The technique is known as failing fast.

Encountering failure and rising from it to scale the mountain a second time is enshrined in corporate legend — a state best described by Henry Ford: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Persisting in that reach for the golden ring even after an initial setback is a recurring theme in popular culture, perpetuated especially in films like Rocky, Friday Night Lights, and Chariots of Fire.

Even the great sportsmen like Michael Jordan lend credence to this ethos: “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

Irish companies have been quick to embed the fast fail principle in boardrooms and facilities based on findings published in the KPMG 2019 Global CEO Outlook.

Four out of five business leaders would empower their employees to innovate and venture across new ground without entertaining a fear of negative consequences. Three-quarters of respondents claimed to have successfully implanted this objective.

“Business leaders are encouraging their teams to try new things and experiment, where success isn’t guaranteed,” says KPMG managing partner Seamus Hand.

Irish CEOs appear to be successful in embedding the ethos that lessons from failure are valuable in supporting the innovation process.

CEOs need to encourage agility through a culture of innovation where people are motivated to try new things.

“A toleration of failure is part of their culture and that helps drive success in businesses,” Mr Hand says.

CEOs and business leaders in the North are particularly conscious of embracing the fast fail culture in an effort to make their companies as innovative as possible, according to the Northern Ireland edition of the KPMG Global CEO Outlook.

It found that the majority of chief executives surveyed want their employees to feel empowered to innovate without worrying about negative consequences if the initiative fails, higher than the result returned from their global peers.

Most of the companies surveyed want their employees to feel empowered to innovate.

“Successful CEOs know they need their companies to be as innovative as possible and it’s clear that the right environment is being created in Northern Ireland to do just that,” says John Hansen, partner in charge of KPMG in Northern Ireland.

“Our leaders aren’t afraid to give their teams the scope to try new ideas which may have a risk of failure and that opens up a world of potential.”

If the fail fast culture found its initial traction overseas, it has also found a receptive audience amongst CEOs and managing directors in Ireland, who know that the best-laid plans can often derail.

Generally thought to have originated amidst the film and tech industry in California, the fail-fast ethos will likely have seeded itself in Ireland partly through the number of American multinationals based here.

“Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil, they aren’t evil at all,” says Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation. “They are the inevitable consequence of doing something new, and as such, should be valuable. Without them, we’d have no originality.”

Those who do not experience failure are not exposing themselves to potentially exciting opportunities, according to Jodi Goldstein, managing director of the Harvard Innovation Labs.

“If you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to get used to failing every day and innovating, learning and pivoting. I’ve learned a lot more from my failures than my successes and I encourage that here at Harvard on a daily basis,” Mr Goldstein says.

He adds that he wears his failures “as a badge of honour”.

The late Steve Jobs, the man whose vision gave the world the smartphone and a myriad of similar devices, was fired from Apple, the company he subsequently led to greatness.

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” he recalled years later.

For him, the heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.

“It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life,” he explained.

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