Monday, July 16, 2012

Contained Failure

One of the core messages of lean is "fail fast." Ryan MacCarrigan, VP of Marketing at Lean Startup Machine and one of LSMs best teachers, likes to tell the group that "failing" fast doesn't mean catastrophic-I-went-bankrupt-and-my-wife-left-me type failure. Quite the opposite: testing your riskiest assumptions first helps you avoid catastrophic failure, because the "failures" that you have in your model are contained within the boundaries of the experiment, and so become valuable learning moments rather than disasters.

I spent this past weekend working with Ryan as a mentor for the Lean Startup Machine NYC and preparing for next weekend's Lean Startup Machine in Santiago, Chile, which I will be leading. As we went through the material, I made up a term meaning the opposite of catastrophic failure: contained failure: like a container for performing controlled explosions that don't harm the outside world, lean experiments contain the cost of the failure - time, money, and emotional energy - and keep them from doing larger harm. If you are a small team, trying to figure out how to get your business off the ground, time especially will be precious. If you are a big company, lean will help you contain the morale contagion that a failure can have on other parts of the company, and will limit the political fallout. In all cases, going into your experiments with the expectation that your assumptions will probably be invalidated contains the hit to your emotional energy we all feel when what we are sure is a great idea turns out to be wrong, and helps you bounce back to the next assumption and the next experiment with no lack of enthusiasm.

Every failure consumes some non-zero amount of time, money, and energy. The trick is to limit the amount of time, money, and energy that will be consumed. Containing your failures by no means guarantees that you'll ever get to success, but it sure means that you'll have more of time, money, and energy to take another shot at it.


Thanks to Ryan MacCarrigan and Brant Cooper for their inspiration and support on this post. 

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