I’ve always been a fan of ‘Fail Fast, Fail Often’. But with being ‘restlessly dissatisfied’ I was delighted to find new inspiration from an unlikely source. Hollywood film star Will Smith is known to most of the world as a gifted comedian and an action star. This year, he’s also been using social media to develop a following as an inspirational leader. He has coined ‘fail often, fail early, fail forward’ as a mantra. In a seemingly ad-hoc speech from the back of his car, he uses a relatable example to make his point:
“When you go to the gym and you work out, you’re actually seeking failure, you want to take your muscles to the point where you get to failure because that’s where adaptation is, that’s where growth is… you can’t lift that, you can’t do that, until you get to a point that all of a sudden, your body makes the adjustment and then you can do it.”
There’s an important sense of purpose and direction here, that is similar in concept to a lean start-up getting to a minimum viable product and getting it into the market. It’s about focus: when you’ve got an idea, you need to take it in a direction and test it. As Smith says, “Failure actually helps you to recognise the areas where you need to evolve.”
Back in 2009, Founder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman famously put it another way: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” Getting it wrong, and not being afraid of it, is a necessary part of adaptation and growth.
What do we mean here by ‘failure’? In spite of all the motivational quotes and inspirational examples, there is still a lot of negativity attached to the concept. Of course, the answer is that failure is in the eye of the beholder. I always think of the famous adage attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said faster horses”.
By ‘failing’ to consult a focus group, Ford changed the world with cars. In a recent shift for the company, they now define themselves as a ‘mobility company’ rather than a car manufacturer. It’s a powerful True North that strongly expresses purpose as a way to release the mindset. And importantly, it creates the potential for positive failure!
In our centre for assessing our consultants, the third exercise of the half-day session is a role play with a nightmare customer where the candidate cannot get it right. The action is based on a real life experience we have had with a client. It is designed to test the participant’s resilience over ten minutes and ability to stay in the moment. They need to build rapport, even though they are failing with every step. The point is to fail: it’s about seeing how adaptable you can be when facing failure and use it to learn. It’s an opportunity to stretch and develop behaviours.
In his book Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes the bits of poison that Roman emperors would take to develop their immunity in the case of attack. They believed that you have to build up resilience in their own systems because if they didn’t then someone else would exploit that.
There have been plenty of recent examples of companies being disrupted from the outside because they were not driving change from within. From Facebook reeling in the light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the Academy Awards being called to account for their lack of diversity, organisations that don’t address their own weaknesses are being made to answer for them.
It is only through adversity that organisations change. Using Nicholas Taleb’s example, it’s about making sure you’re taking the little bits of poison yourself. Or as Will Smith puts it, “You’ve got to take a shot. You’ve got to live at the edge of your capabilities. Practice is controlled failure.”
I couldn’t agree more.