Fail Fast Forward: the Most Misunderstood Concept Among Entrepreneurs

“Fail fast forward” is a common phrase in entrepreneurial circles. A curious new “fail fast forward” martyrdom has evolved, which is what I’d like to address today. Not because fail fast forward idea is wrong, per se, but because the notion has been misappropriated and bastardized, by matter of degree and lens, into something potentially detrimental to the budding entrepreneur. And I’m targeting the budding entrepreneur here because those who’ve been in the game for an extended period understand the finer points of the concept. 

Or at least, they should.

The truth is, even battle-tested entrepreneurs can be subject to groupthink gone awry. There is a time and place for even the seasoned pros in every endeavor for reflection and course adjustment. Let us all step back then, take a big breath, and think about how the fail fast forward concept should be utilized.

The Sporting Analogy

That any particular sport is popular in a culture is because it presents to its fans as a measured, scored, and fast-paced microcosm of life itself, especially the entrepreneurial life. Talent, position-specific skills, work ethic, intelligence, game preparation, team building and coaching, and yes, even the scourge of cheating. Sound familiar? Sports are the rapid-fire, multi-level chess game of life with little time for contemplation. 

If we look at the fail fast forward concept from, let’s say, a baseball analogy, would we ever coach a batter to hurry up and strike out? Even if the act of striking out could somehow make him a better batter in the end? Of course not.  We have to win today to even make it to tomorrow! But that’s exactly what the concept of  fail fast forward has become: go in marginally prepared and take scant probability cuts against low and outside pitches. 

This, my friends, is not what fail fast forward is about. Nor is it about amassing battle wounds and bragging right scars.  

Again, to the sporting analogy: training programs are undertaken to make an athlete or trainee better. What good can come from beating an athlete into the ground? From repeated forced failure? As a trainer/coach, I can make a trainee puke in two minutes flat…but what’s the point in that? Have I made that trainee better in doing so? Again, failure for failure’s sake is not the point. And believe me: stay in the entrepreneurial game long enough and those battle scars will come without your having to seek them out.  In fact, they’ll come despite your best efforts at avoiding them.  It’s just the nature of the game.

Courting failure is not the intent. We need to keep our eyes on the prize, and the prize here of course, is success. It’s winning at whatever game we choose in which to leverage the fail fast forward idea.

Back to the Roots: Where did Fail Fast Forward come from?

The idea can’t be tied to one single person. It’s more a collective, imagined mythos of how the battle-hardened (and now successful) mogul got to be that way, and it’s nothing less than propaganda sold to the hungry, burgeoning entrepreneur in search of answers (and motivation).

Think about this for just a moment: selling failure is a pretty damn smart thing to do! We can argue the ethics of this, but not the savvy. Edison failed a bizillion times before inventing the lightbulb, you’re told. Now get going and fail your way to success! Are you failing? Perfect! See? My program is working!

The problem with this analogy is that Edison, in the case of the lightbulb, was acting as an inventor. An inventor, by the way, whose endeavors where funded by other profitable (i.e., not failing) channels. And although there is some Venn overlap between the acts of inventing and entrepreneurship, their systems, processes, and expected outcomes are totally different. Much the same as with shortstops and catchers. That they are both baseball players who have to have a good bat is where the similarities end.

Look, I’m all for motivation and rah-rah. But somewhere within the motivational marketing hype, a thread of common sense was lost. Again, let’s step back, take a breath, and remember: if you accept failure as an outcome, you’ll get just that. Repeatedly. And with no win in sight.

So if failing toward success isn’t the goal, what is?

Colonel David Hackworth once quipped, “If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn’t plan your mission properly.” This should be the mantra by which entrepreneurs live. Failure to plan is planning to fail.  

Life isn’t so simple though. Because as Mike Tyson is famous for pointing out:

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

So, how do we reconcile these two realities?  By diligent planning, first and foremost. But also by adaptingAnd learning! It’s not that the entrepreneur should endeavor to “fail fast” and “fail forward,” but iterate fast and iterate forward. It’s in fast evolution in relation to circumstance and surroundings that we’ll succeed. We don’t strive for failure – and, in fact, do everything in our planning power to circumvent it – but we’re not put off by our best efforts ending up in a “punch to the face”.  There is no failure, only feedback. We learn from that feedback and evolve. We’re malleable. But only our best efforts part the ropes and enter the ring. We’re only taking cuts at high percentage pitches and at favorable counts. We feel the sting of our best efforts going awry, yet persevere anyway.

Yes, if in spite of our best planning and effort we come up short, we have to dust ourselves off, pivot (a term we’ll explore next time), and get back in the tumble. This might be described as the “square jaw, taciturn” mindset.

The goal, as always, is to come out with the best game plan possible; gunning for a first round knockout. There is no honor in poor preparation, stumbling and bumbling into a multitude of pivots and corner work. I mean, at the end of the day, this idea of ours has to show a return on investment! Unless you’re a trust fund baby, you’re eventually going to have to pony-up for a roof over your head and a bite to eat.  

At Paleo f(x)™, financial success translates into a bigger megaphone. Our intent is to progress the Paleo movement, and profit is the required energy to make that happen. Failure, even momentary failure, retards that process and stalls the movement as a whole.

So don’t think for a minute that failure is a necessity for successful entrepreneurship.  Or life for that matter. But we do have to be malleable (coachable), eager to learn and be immune to the sting of whatever failure/feedback does come our way. That to know success, we will have to persevere in spite of those repeated punches in the face in no way means that those punches should find an easy target.  

Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world.

– Keith

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Keith Norris

Keith Norris

Keith is one of those few lucky souls who has been able to completely transition out of corporate America and dive headlong into his passion for bettering lives by teaching the art and science of physical culture.  He not only “walks the walk” on a day-to-day basis, but his economic well-being hinges on his precepts […]

Paleo f(x)™

Heal thyself. Change the world.