Why failing fast is valuable

A while back I posted this quote from a BBC interview with Astro Teller, “Capitain of Moonshots” at Google[x]:

You must reward people for failing, he says. If not, they won’t take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don’t reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organisation’s spirit.

Finding new transformational ideas is like sending out a team of scouts to explore uncharted terrain for new mountains to climb, he says.

“If you shame them when they come back, if you tell them that they’ve failed you because they didn’t find a mountain, no matter how diligently they looked for or how cleverly they looked for it, those scouts will quit your company.”

The impact of the response to failure on people is important – but there’s more to product development than just “taking risks” and any worry about hanging on to a “doomed idea”. The truth is, the failure is actually valuable to us, because it generates information. We know something that we didn’t know before.

Celebrating failure in product development is not because of some romantic idea about how brave and courageous or special or unique it is. Developing new or improved products and services is not about hitting a predetermined target, for which we know everything we need to know. Not only do we really not know where the target is, but there are potentially thousands or even millions of potential paths to get there. Many of these paths won’t work or the market will reject the result. The fact is that we don’t know where we’re going and we’re not sure how, or even if, we can get there.

What we are missing is information. Which path leads to success and which paths lead to failure, and when we get wherever we’re going, will anybody actually want it? The feedback loop that we want to drive as fast as possible, is Idea to Information.

Idea to Information

It is for this reason that not only is failing valuable, but failing fast is even more valuable. Quickly discovering which paths don’t work is information that we should treat as Intellectual Property and work to generate this information faster than the competition. Quickly discovering wrong turns help us to narrow down our options and decide whether to either adjust, abandon or accelerate. This is why information discovery value and how it decays over time is an important input to Cost of Delay.