In the midst of the high-tech America’s Cup races that took place in the San Francisco Bay and the incredible speeds exhibited, I am reminded of capsizing sailboats, and how they apply to Change Leadership.
An underlying premise behind Change Leadership is that success is best achieved by moving as close to the limits of risk as you can afford, while avoiding any actual pain. A good analogy—especially in a topic about speed—is a sailboat. To maximize speed, the sailor has to optimize the pressure on the sail almost, but not quite, to the point of flipping the boat. When risks are higher (say, there are sharks in the water) the person at the helm will rightly back off a little more from the edge because the potential costs of capsizing are more significant.
But what about when a new boat is being designed? Or when the costs of not being at the limit are higher than going past it? In other words, is there a case when making the boat flip might actually be smarter than not flipping? The answer in a business context is “Yes!”
One of my colleagues earlier in my career inspired me by enthusiastically talking about how we were going to “make mistakes at a high rate of speed.” Later, I saw this attitude exhibited in some companies that deliberately put products on the market knowing they are not yet nearly perfect. Even later I heard this strategy described as the “fail fast” approach.
Some conditions for a true “fail fast” approach—where your mistakes are in plain view of your customers and even competitors—include the following:
- Getting something on the market—either alongside and/or ahead of your competitors—is key to your success.
- Your customers are resilient, mature, or savvy enough to handle any problems caused by your product or service’s “failure.”
- Your customers will not “blacklist” you for failure—and may even see you as a partner in helping them by taking the fail fast risk.
- You’re able to invest the time to support your customers in the event of a failure.
- You have the focus and resources to observe, learn from, and respond to the failure with solutions and/or a “newer-and-better” product or service.
There’s a lot of value in understanding, and using, a fail fast strategy in an environment where speed is critical and excessive deliberateness has its own risks. Often, the risk management paradigm of leaders and businesses as a whole (best reflected in the phrase “don’t screw up”) promotes behavior where ideas are not tested under the harsh conditions they’ll have to endure in the real world. A lot of the time (probably most) this is the right call. Keeping the sailboat from tipping over is usually smarter than getting into a cycle of capsizing and righting the boat. But as a leader, you need to be aware of when it is worthwhile—and safe—to capsize the boat.