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Fail Forward Fast: Get Over Being Right and Get On With Getting On With It

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I'd like for you to get over the idea that you should be making correct decisions.

If that sounds like a dumb thing to say, consider this: When you're trying to make a correct decision, you've got to incorporate all the relevant data.

"From the dawn of civilization to 2003, five exabytes of data were created. The same amount was created in the last two days."
--Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, in 2010

The well-known quote by Schmidt gives a fascinating yet frightening insight into the massive pile of information you face when trying to make a decision. A more recent SanDisk ad campaign claims that the volume of business data is expected to double every 1.2 years. So, unless you have an impossibly large and well-coordinated team of expert analysts at your disposal, the data is probably getting generated faster than you can obtain, absorb, and consider it.

So, please get used to the idea that the data upon which you're basing every decision you make is incomplete. Woefully incomplete. And, of course, incomplete data equals less likelihood of a correct decision.

You're doomed from the start.

Actually, even if you could obtain, analyze, and correctly interpret ALL of that data immediately before making your decision, you'd still be pretty likely to get it wrong.


Because in the act of making the decision, you change the data, and new facts arise.

Think about this for a minute. You don't exist in a vacuum. Your decisions interact with the environment around you. Your decision to order a latte instead of a coffee changes the inventory at Starbucks. Your decision to enter a new market, hire or fire an employee, or pursue a new solution to an old problem has its own ramifications.

Actually, even just beginning to consider a decision -- to stop at Starbucks, to research the new market, to ask your HR person about hiring or firing, to revisit the old problem - has ramifications to the system around you.

Think "Observer Effect." Think "Hawthorne Effect." Think "Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle."

Both your decision itself and the act of considering it and investigating alternatives actually change the situation. They change the world, just a little. They change the data.

So, by the time you've reached your decision, things are a little different than they were when you were gathering data. And, by the time you've implemented your decision, things are even more different; the informational basis for your decision is even more wrong than it was when you decided. Even your infinitely large team of imaginary analysts can't keep up.

But you have to decide, so you do. And then, at some point, your decision becomes visible. You announce it, start it, put it into practice. Shortly thereafter, someone emerges who has access to a different data set than you do, and that person has a message: "You're wrong."

That person has a point.

It's popular, of course, to criticize the critic -- and, truly, it is easier to criticize than to act. But that's not the whole story. As it turns out, your decision to enter a new market really did put you on the radar of a competitor in a new way you didn't expect. Your decision to hire or fire someone led to some downstream reorganization that wasn't predicted. Your decision to revisit the old problem offended someone who had declared the issue closed.

The frustrating yammering of the peanut gallery, it turns out, is not without factual merit. Unfortunately.

It's tempting, at this point, to defend your decision. The easiest way to do this is to declare the new information inappropriate or invalid. That competitor "shouldn't have" responded that way. Your group "needed reorganizing anyway." That person "should know better than" to get offended. And, of course, the person who brought the new information shouldn't be meddling in your decisions.

Killing the messenger is a time-honored tradition.

Or, equally popular, you can claim that your wrongness isn't your fault. That the unforeseen couldn't be foreseen. I suppose, with that argument, you'd be right.

But, really: Who cares?

What I mean is, if you get over the idea that you're supposed to be making correct decisions, you won't have to waste time on those questions. Instead, you can worry about some much more important ones. Questions like, what are we going to do about that competitor's response? How can the reorganization be accomplished most effectively? What can we do to address the offended person?

In other words, what's the next decision we need to make?

Get over your incorrectness and get on with the work. Make your next incorrect decision based on the information you now have. And do it as quickly as possible, please. As we used to say when I was in high-tech engineering, "fail forward, fast."

That's what they call, in some circles, rapid prototyping.

It's what they call, in some circles, iteration.

It's what they call, in some circles, good leadership.

Of course -- OF COURSE -- I'm not saying you shouldn't try to make the best possible decision. You absolutely should do your best, every single time. You should conduct, in the most rapid way you deem acceptable, as thorough an analysis as possible of the situation at hand. You should engage the proper experts and advisors appropriate to the decision. And you should not decide while you are emotional, overtired, or drunk -- just to name a few altered states.

Make the very best possible decision you can, every single time.

And then, expect to be wrong. The best possible decision you can make probably isn't the right one. Don't worry about it. It's still the reasonable one. It's still the most logical next step.

You can take another step, again, tomorrow. And be wrong, again.