In one or two progressive companies I worked for, there was an understanding of the saying “Fail-fast, learn-fast”. In these companies, it was safe to fail. I even remember discussing a decision with a senior manager and whether the decision would work out. Eventually, we agreed to “Fail-fast, learn-fast” and dived in, preparing to reverse the decision if it didn’t go the way it was planned.
In my training, I try to express this idea, but it’s a difficult concept for a lot of people as they tend to focus on the “fail” part. Failing can be expensive.
When I was back on the farm with my brother, we hired a digger to drain a swamp. That afternoon we saw the events as they unfolded.
The digger was opening a new part of the drain, and the heavy machine began to sink into the bog. Panicking, the inexperienced driver turned the tracks hoping to head for firmer ground, instead of just backing out the way he came. That was a mistake. The act of turning the tracks cut the top of the bog and the whole digger began to slide under the swamp. Firm ground to pull himself out with his scoop was too far away.
That was a mistake
At first light, on the third day, all that could be seen of the digger was about a meter of the top of the boom (the digger arm) showing above the swamp. About then several trucks turned up with two more massive diggers and the largest bulldozer in the country at the time – for the size of its winch. The brothers who owned the company joined us at our vantage point to oversee the operation.
After a few hours of operation, they had uncovered the digger, and the driver was informed that he had “volunteered” to strip down to his undies to climb into the cab where they would try to restart it.
We watched as the driver reluctantly waded waist high to the digger door, where mud and eels poured out all over him from the cab where he had to climb in.
mud and eels poured out all over him
In the end, they did get it out and we were talking to the brothers about the original mistake causing the situation. We asked what was going to happen to the driver.
The brothers then told us that the driver would need to supply a couple of crates of beer for the team, and the jokes would continue for some time, but he wouldn’t be fired, even after the huge cost to the company in both machine costs and lost revenue.
the whole team working on this now learned from that same mistake.
If they fired him and hired someone else, the new person may end up doing the same thing but keep this person on, and there will be no way that he would ever make that mistake again. That was guaranteed. More, the whole team working on this now learned from that same mistake.
It’s not about failing, or even about Failing fast. It’s about the learning. If we are not prepared to fail, we would never learn anything new, never stretch ourselves, and never become competent at new skills and situations.
I’ve even heard of one company who has a “fail-wall” where they display all of the things they learned, for others to also learn.