Fail Better

"The right kind of failure instructs, refines, and improves ideas, work products, skills, capacities, and teamwork."

- Fail Better, page 283

We all are familiar with the old adage to learn from your mistakes. Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner by Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn is a guideline for how to learn from failures that you or your team encounter in the workplace. The book is brimming with practical knowledge and real world examples of individuals and companies that made changes to incorporate a fail better approach. Instead of just celebrating successes it is extremely important to also look at failures and to extract from them where things went awry. It could be an information breakdown, process breakdown or communication or role clarity issue inside of the team. But no matter the cause, examining failure gives you a starting point for making improvements for future projects.

Fact: we all make mistakes. We also all at one point or another in our working life have just barreled through one task after another that is thrown in our direction, busying ourselves in the flow of work coming to us from our managers. Or we have been managers assigning project after project to our teams, which sometimes succeed and other times flop. And despite the amount of effort and energy that our teams put in to these projects we leave ourselves no time for analysis, we simply call it a dud and move on to the next project. The Fail Better method shows readers in three easy steps how to fail better in the projects we plan. From the launch stage, to what the book calls the “iterate” stage, which consists of planning, acting and deciding, and moving to the final stage called embedding, which occurs through evaluation and habit forming, the book offers in great detail how to implement a plan to embrace failure and learn from it.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Be conscious of your mindset

"Your workplace interactions, activities, and decisions are shaped by your mind-set – how you approach difficult conversations, select which battles to fight, and make tough trade-offs. Every action you take reveals what you think is important and what you are willing to let slide…"
- Fail Better, page 199

I will start by sharing The Free Dictionary’s definition of mindset: “1. A fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s responses to and interpretations of situations. 2. An inclination or a habit.” Both of these are things we need to be mindful of and assess on a regular basis. Our mindsets filter through many of our daily routines and tasks and depending on how they reveal themselves can be portrayed in a negative or positive light. An important step in beginning to assess and harness our failures as positive learning experiences is to first look inward to ourselves, our attitudes and how we react with the world around us. Only then can we begin to learn from our own actions and make adjustments to habits that have formed over time. Sometimes our mindset is difficult to change, but by being honest about it we can develop coping mechanisms for how to deal with our daily interactions with others.

When I read a business management book I am looking to the authors for some form of professional growth that can help me in my career, however it is more often than not the elements of the book that speak to personal growth that resonate most with me. In our busy lives we often rush along, corralled into our daily routines with little time for personal or professional reflection. Although this book offers wonderful tips for how to harness the power of failure in terms of dealing with projects at work, I paused to think while reading about our mindset and how they shape our world. This pause for self-reflection served me well, because if we are hoping to implement change and adapt in our professional life, we must be conscious of where we might also need to adapt in our personal life.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Capture your findings

"Embed the learning. Instead of losing hard-earned wisdom as you rush on to the next project, capture and share your findings."
- Fail Better, page 57

By taking time to evaluate and embed the learning we are not only able to learn and grow, but simply put we can save ourselves wasted time by not duplicating past mistakes. An easy place to start is to create a project timeline history. A timeline is a great place to track where plans deviated, where new projects arose and branched off from the original goal, where new team members were added or subtracted and simply to track all the major elements that make up the project. By capturing your project in a historical timeline it allows for analysis of things such as what were the major milestones, what brought about transitions in the project and were these transitions planned or the result of revelations that came about as the project evolved over time?

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Stay adaptable

"…keep it simple and supple. This is especially important for high-pressure projects that call for a measure of scrappiness. Complicated grand plans could be a waste of time – or worse – for such projects. To innovate, explore, or problem-solve, scrappy projects need to be able to turn on a dime."
- Fail Better, page 62

This advice comes from the section of the book about launching your project. When you are in the beginning stages too much pre-planning has the potential to really hamper you in the long run. Remember when you are starting out to KISS – keep it simple, stupid. If you want to welcome innovation into your project’s design you need to be prepared to be flexible and with too much planning that is inflexible you run the risk of organizing yourself into a preordained failure down the road.

We spend so much of our lives celebrating successes and downplaying our failures that we have built a culture of neurotic perfectionists who view flops as flaws. Failure is inevitable.  Learning this is the first step to being able to adopt and apply the Fail Better Method. By living our lives as though we are infallible we are actually weakening ourselves in the long run by not allowing ourselves the opportunity for reflection, growth and improvement, which comes from accepting and assessing our failures. Fear of failure also has the ability to hold us back from being uninhibited and truly innovative. What efforts will you make to change the culture around failure in your professional life?

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Ruby McClenaghan

ABOUT Ruby McClenaghan

I am a Certified Human Resources Professional and a recent graduate just starting out in my career. I am an associate board member of my local chapter of the HRPA...
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