Hold a Funeral to Improve Your Chance for Success
The phrase "fail fast, fail cheap" is ubiquitous in startups and to a lesser extent in established businesses (who should know it by now but still resist it practice the plague). And as important as accepting failure as part of the learning process is it's not the only way that failure can help you succeed.
(Almost) all new ventures from a scrappy startup build on an idea to an internal company project promising change start with a ton of optimism. We set goals and objectives, possibly even write an ambitious vision statement and predict the many positive outcomes of our to yet be made investment. And that's all good. We do it and we do it for others though our approach to Serious Play in the form of things like vision statements described as the perfect island in the distance that we will sail to. But ambition and optimism can be blinding and need to be balanced with some "positive pessimism."
We do this by facilitating teams in a discussion around potential for failure. We do things like host a funeral for the upcoming effort where the team must write a eulogy that helps everyone understand why the project might have failed. Or we have people brainstorm around the statement "Imagine you have traveled 1 year in the future. Your project has failed. What were the possible causes for it's demise." We have many other ways to provoke this same conversation (an imagined autopsy of the dead project always generates some giggles when we put people in surgery masks and the recap of why the plane crashed with pilot hats works well too) but the purpose is the same: get people to pre-mortem the effort and identify the risk of failure that must be carefully managed. (We are often doing these things at the kick off of new initiatives as part of Gemodojitsu sessions, The Art of #GetMoreDone which give new teams a 3-4 hour window to start right and finish faster).
With a generated list of possible causes of failure teams are able to more clearly navigate a course to success while being vigilant of things they might do, ignore or underestimate along the way that would sabotage best efforts. The resulting action items often leads to earlier and more cross functional conversations within an organization and more appreciation for diverse perspectives on a small startup team. It also often helps team improve their challenge statement or project objectives, align otherwise siloed departments or teams and instills a better appreciation for early research and outreach - especially around learning from the end user of their solution (something that is often not consider well enough in way too many projects but for which we are advocates of with our focus on outside-in perspective that comes naturally to human centric design.
What can you do with this. Hold a 55 minute meeting (odd times make people more conscious of time). Give everyone Post-it notes and Sharpies (yes, we love these brands specifically) and have them imagine the possible causes that would lead to the failure of efforts. (Feel free to add a metaphor like funeral, time traveling observer, post-mortem, etc to make it fun and get people speaking up quicker). Have everyone organize the resulting Post-its in themes and have small teams of 2-3 people write a summary of that theme asking them to give the cause of failure a title and a one to two sentence description (we have more involved ways to do this but this works well for any quick session). Give the team time to discuss the themes/causes and start identifying what must be done, monitored or discussed in ore depth in order to help assure these things don't happen. Turn this into an action list. You can also create a poster of "We Shall Never, Ever..." that keeps everyone aware of the top 6-10 things to be conscious of moving forward.
So break out the black clothing and have a funeral. Your future success will thank you for it.
(photo credit: Johnathan Gallegos on Unsplash)