We Should Stop Telling Entrepreneurs To 'Fail Fast'

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Rob Shelton


"Fail fast" has become standard entrepreneurial advice. Startups and small businesses are told they shouldn't worry about messing up, because it's better to quickly realize that something's not working and move on.

That's the right idea but very much the wrong attitude, according to Rob Shelton, the global innovation chief of PwC.

When the professional services giant did a massive study looking at what separates the most innovative companies from the rest of the pack, one of the most important attributes was what Shelton calls a "Darwinian engine," defined as a formalized process for innovation, and an ability to rapidly try and test out new ideas and discard the ones that don't work. But don't call it "failing," he warns.

"Whenever you talk about breakthrough innovation, a lot of people say you should 'fail fast' or 'fail early,'" Shelton says. "I don't like the word 'fail.' It leads to a negative reaction."


Instead, innovation should follow a more scientific process. "It's about having a hypothesis, and testing it," he says. "If the results don't match your hypothesis, you've got data. If the results do match your hypothesis, then you have a discovery."

A lot of the time, businesses don't stumble on the right path until they've gone down a few wrong ones. Figuring out what works means you have to shut a lot of ideas and projects down. That can demoralize people. The best way to soften the blow is to have everyone in the right state of mind.

"Focusing on discovery and data development is the right mindset," Shelton says. "The root of the word 'failure' is to disappoint. That's not what you want. You want people to say: 'That was good. Now let's move on to the next one.'"