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February 19, 2008

Planning for Failure

There have been a numbers of good posts lately on failure: Fred Wilson kicked it off with Failure Rates In Early Stage Venture Deals; fellow VC Seth Levine picked up the riff with Failure; Brad Feld says It’s Better to Fail Quickly and Mitchell Ashley says Fail Early, Fail Often. They’re all right, of course: failure happens; failure teaches lessons; failure builds character; and failure sucks. But none of them have posted the eight sure steps to failure.

Failure’s easy to achieve; all you have to do is plan for it. Here’s how:

  1. set only low goals; then you’ll fail even if you meet them.
  2. when you get behind schedule, revise the goals down; that’ll incent everyone not to break his or her neck trying to catch up.
  3. revisit goals frequently; you may have accidentally set them too high.
  4. don’t monitor progress; you might scare yourself.
  5. form a committee to revisit the goals; that’ll protect against undue enthusiasm and deflect blame (and responsibility).
  6. make sure you’re the first to cry “uncle”; then failure won’t be your fault.
  7. never revise the strategy for achieving goals; it’s much easier to move the goalposts.
  8. make sure everyone knows that you know the goals are unachievable; that’ll help assure that you’re right.

Very seriously, it’s better to get most of the way to an audacious goal than to achieve a slam dunk. On the other hand, failing at a slam dunk really sucks. If you want to be a success, you have to set your goals very high (and then, as I know well, often you’ll fail).

If you’re an entrepreneur, you have no choice. You have to achieve something audacious in some dimension (technology, marketing, financing, customer support, scale… something) or you aren’t going to distinguish yourself from those who are already entrenched and you’re going to be overrun by those who were braver.

If you’re dealing in technology in any type of organization, you also have no choice. Technology changes so quickly that anything that doesn’t get done at outrageous speed will be obsolete before it’s finished. That’s just the way it is.

You can’t just set a high goal and then bury your head in the sand, either. Chances are your plan to achieve any worthy goal will slip at one point or another. Then it’s time to revise the plan. That’s something you want to do very quickly. You may even find a few features you can trim from the goal to protect its essence.

Plans were made to be changed; goals were made to be met. Real failures come from giving in to fear of failure.

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