How to fail more mindfully not just fail fast

Posted By - Geoff Watts


This is in response to a LinkedIn post I put out there

I went out for dinner with my wife recently and I failed twice.

I made a good mistake and I made a bad mistake.

I would say “we” but I reckon it was probably “I”… 😀

My wife ordered fries with her main and I wasn’t sure if I wanted fries or not. Perhaps we could share fries? Generally speaking, my wife doesn’t share fries…and I understand this…a bit like Joey from Friends.

I did, however, like the sound of “chilli and garlic broccoli” and, after checking with my wife if she might want to share I ordered that as a side for my schnitzel.

And just as the waiter was about to leave I said “And I’ll have some fries as well please”

It turned out I didn’t finish either my fries or the broccoli – both were bad *outcomes* but only one of them I would suggest was a bad *decision*.

Some mistakes are good mistakes and some are bad mistakes

Good Mistakes and Bad Mistakes

You see, it turned out the broccoli had very little flavour and so we didn’t eat it because of how it was cooked.

That factor was not in our control…sure we could have sent it back and asked for it to be replaced or asked for it to be taken off the bill (£5 for a few bits of broccoli…the world’s gone mad!)

It was a good mistake because it was made in good faith, for solid reasons and it was easily reversible.

The fries, however, that was the hunger talking.

It was a ‘bad mistake’ partly because it was a decision that didn’t need to be made then.

We could have shared one lot of fries and if it was clear we were still going to be hungry enough for more, we could have ordered the second “cup of fries” then.

It was also a bad decision because it was not easily reversible.

We wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if we asked for them to be taken off the bill simply because we weren’t hungry enough to finish them.

Don’t Fail Fast

The term “fail fast” has been part of the agile lexicon since…well…forever.

You hear “Move fast and break things”, “It’s OK to fail here” and “failure is the First Attempt In Learning”. There’s a lot of truth in there because, in a complex, uncertain, unpredictable and fast-changing environment it’s impossible to get everything right and it would take too long to figure it out even if it was possible.

However, the term “fail fast” doesn’t cut it with me because it’s always felt like mindless abandon.

So what if this decision doesn’t work out, we’ll have learned something…

True. But…

Fail Mindfully Instead of Fail Fast

I want to go back to my dinner.

Because I’m hungry…

But seriously, there’s a big difference between failing mindfully and just failing fast.

And this isn’t an excuse for you to over-think things because in a fast-paced environment ‘perfect is the enemy of good’

But I work with a lot of product people and agile teams who need to make lots of decisions and I don’t encourage you to just take a ‘fail fast’ approach.

Try and make fewer bad mistakes and more good mistakes.

Make more ‘good mistakes’

Good mistakes are made in good faith

Be sure this decision is being made in the pursuit of doing the right thing for the product rather than the easy decision or the fear of making the wrong decision. They are not the result of negligence or lack of effort and are ethically sound.

Good mistakes are scientific

Good mistakes stem from decisions made with a clear, testable hypothesis. This scientific approach ensures that even if the outcome isn’t as expected, valuable data and insights are gained. Good mistakes are generally driven by logic not emotion. When my hunger took over, I made a bad mistake with the fries. Notice your triggers when you make bad decisions.

Good mistakes are cheap and quick

Good mistakes are those that minimise potential losses. They are affordable, require minimal time investment, and are designed to be reversible or adjustable. This allows for quick pivots without significant resource depletion.

Good mistakes keep our options open

Not ordering fries could have led to a bad outcome too. Maybe we wouldn’t have got the fries in time to enjoy with the rest of the meal. But it didn’t close off options; it kept options open. As well as the option to NOT order fries, it also kept the option of ordering a different side open as well.

Good mistakes are learning-oriented

Good mistakes provide clear learning opportunities. They contribute to the collective knowledge and experience of the team, offering insights that can be used to improve future decision-making and strategy. They will also ideally help us build resilience in our discovery process. We shouldn’t fear making good mistakes.

How can you make fewer ‘bad mistakes’ and more ‘good mistakes’?

Do your due diligence

What previous knowledge can be used in this situation? What happened the last few times we went out for dinner?

Accept imperfection

We can’t be sure and we don’t control all the variables so don’t overthink in pursuit of perfection

Notice your triggers

Avoid making decisions when you are less mindful (don’t go grocery shopping when you are hungry) and take a breath before deciding.

Adopt a scientific ritual

Maybe you craft a full-blown experiment or maybe it’s just a case of asking yourself “what do I want to learn here?” and “how can I be more objective?”


If you are a product person and want to know more about how to make better decisions, check out my Product Mastery Pathway

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