Posted: 2:26 p.m. Thursday, May 23, 2013
By Les McKeown
"Fail fast, fail often" is popular and appealing. But it's not how you produce great work.
The last five years have produced an increasingly fevered body of business-speak that has achieved almost cult-like status. Expressed variously as 'always be shipping', or 'fail fast', the people who promote this approach would have us believe that leadership--indeed, the very act of creation--is achieved by mere momentum alone.
Just keep doing things, say these proponents--get stuff out the door--and success will be guaranteed. Grab ahold of an idea, turn it into a product or service, but above all, get it out the door. Sure you'll fail--in fact, you'll fail many times--but eventually you'll succeed. After a dozen crappy launches you'll finally stumble on your personal mega-success--your own Angry Birds or iPhone, your own Mad Men or American Idol, your Frisbee or Beanie Baby.
All of which is fine for the startup-kiddies. These youngsters are hungry for success and prepared to do just about anything to achieve it. There has always been just such a group, and there always will be. Our capitalist system is the better for it.
What's much more concerning is the extent to which this "fail fast, fail often" mentality has bled into leadership thinking. It's sucked (some would say, suckered) many leaders into trading focus and excellence for mere motion and mediocrity.
Here are the top three signs I see in leaders who have all the ability needed to produce genuinely outstanding work, but who have instead been conned into joining the ranks of mere 'shippers':
Your intuition tells you so
Well, duh, as the kids say. You'd think that a nagging, persistent voice saying "this is okay, but I could make so much better" would pull most people up short. Unfortunately, experience tells me this isn't so.
Instead, fueled by the "ship early, ship often" mentality, I see leaders constantly sell themselves, their teams and their projects short by tossing stuff out the door that isn't their best work.
As my friend Michael Bungay-Stanier says, there's a world of difference between doing merely good work, and doing great work. If your inner voice is telling you that you're merely doing good work, it's time to slow down and deliver something great.
You're fixated on what's next before you've finished what's now
Any leader worth their salt gets excited when a new project hovers into view. The deciding factor is what they do with that excitement.
Truly great leaders are disciplined. They park their excitement, knowing they can return to it later--but only after ensuring they have delivered real excellence in the project they're currently engaged in.
Less-than-stellar leaders become consumed by the entrancement of the new thing, and are hypnotized into dropping, aborting or prematurely birthing what they're currently working on in order to get their hands on that shiny new project--all, of course, accompanied by an intellectually robust post-rationalization.
If you have a history of losing interest in the final 20% of projects you're responsible for, trading that interest for the thrill of the next new thing, it's time to work on your ability to delay gratification.
You've left behind a trail of failed or near-failed projects
The single most obvious sign that you've become a 'shipper', not a leader, is a tell-tale breadcrumb of failed or good-as-failed projects. These are permanent, visible proof of the lack of discipline required to produce truly great work.
This doesn't just happen at the individual level, by the way. Entire organizations can display this tendency. Compare for example, Google's graveyard of cancelled projects with Apple's short list of flops (Lisa, Newton) and you see the difference between an 'always be shipping' mentality and true industry leadership.
Do you want to be lauded for your ability to pull the trigger and get stuff out the door? Or because you deliver genuinely inspirational, life-changing world-class product? If the former, keep doing more of what you do, and keep doing it faster.
If it's the latter, slow down. And don't feel guilty about it.
Download a free chapter from the author's book, "The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success" which provides a comprehensive model for developing yourself or others as an exceptional, world class leader.