Fail Better: A book review by Bob Morris

Fail BetterFail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner
Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn
Harvard Business Review Press (2014)

“You can’t escape failure”: How to use it to achieve great success that would not otherwise be possible

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of a passage in Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'”

This is precisely what Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn have in mind when introducing what they characterize as the “Fail Better” approach: designing smart mistakes, learn from them, and thereby achieve greater success and do so sooner.

These are among the dozens of passages of special interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Sastry and Penn ‘s coverage:

o Failures, Small and Good, Big and Bad (Pages 16-18)

Note: Peter Sims has much of value to say about this strategy in Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries. As he explains, “At the core of this experimental approach, little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.”

o It’s Not You, It’s the System Complexity (18-24)
o Projects Are the Crucible (27-30)
o The Fail Better Method (34-44)
o Taking Your First Steps to Implement the Method (50-53)
o Results-Driven: Link Action to Outcomes (63-81)
o Build Your Team (87-92)
o At-a-Glance Guidance for Launching Your Project (100-106)
Note: This is one of several “At-a-Glance Guidance” sections located throughout the narrative. Great for frequent review.
o The Power of Iteration (112-127)
o Embed the Learning (152-174)
Note: Derek Bok, former president of Harvard once observed, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
o Implementation: Developing the Fail Better Mind-Set (199-221)
o The Only Benefit of Failing Is What You Learn (226-228)
o Designs for Learning: Calibrated Challenges (228-233)
o Skills for Extracting Feedback’s Lessons (237-243)
o Concluding Thoughts: What BRAC Reveals About Failing Better (261-263)
o Build on the Lessons, Use the Method, and Initiate Larger-Scale Change (280-281)

I commend Sastry and Penn on their provision of nine “Real-World Inspiration” mini-case studies that focus on real people in real companies facing real-world challenges who demonstrate the power of the Fail Better Method. They include several companies wholly unfamiliar to me (e.g. WiPower and Pivots Software) and others that are prominent (e.g. Eli Lilly and IDEO). With all due respect to the importance of developing the Fail Better Mind-Set, responding effectively to challenges using the Fail Better Method must be a collaborative effort at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original expectations and the reasons vary. However, as James O’Toole suggests in Leading Change, most of the resistance tends to be cultural in nature, the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and tyranny of custom.”

Sastry and Penn are well aware of all this, of course, and conclude their book by offering “some parting suggestions for putting the method into practice.” I share their hope that those who read their book will then succeed in helping their organizations to remake work experiences by accelerating the personal growth and professional development of everyone involved. It certainly will not be easy. Indeed, it will be damn difficult. But it can be done because it already has been done by companies such as BRAC, an organization that “over the course of four decades has achieved global change with limited resources.”

Why not yours?

* * *

Anjali Sastry is senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Her research investigates global health delivery and management, applying systems thinking and practical, business-based approaches in low-resource settings. She has conducted numerous field studies and collaborative action projects in Africa and Asia and advises and teaches internationally.

Kara Penn is cofounder and principal consultant at Mission Spark, where she works on the front lines of practical management to implement new approaches in complex settings. She has led award-winning community collaboratives; designed, managed, and evaluated multiyear social change initiatives; and guided more than sixty NGOs, social enterprises, corporations, and foundations. Several prestigious fellowship programs, including Coro, Watson, and Forté, have recognized her leadership and community contributions

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