Scott Ringwelski's Blog

We’re not afraid to fail

A pitch one hears often in Silicon Valley from startups is that they’re not afraid to fail. They move fast, make mistakes, learn from them and move on. That’s great! You’re taking chances that you need to in order to obtain product/market fit and a workable product as soon as possible.

However, there’s one thing that I rarely hear from startups and that is how they respond to inevitable failure. What happens when your new feature you built over the weekend brings down your entire application? Or what happens when product decision oversight causes large churn? The fact is that if you’re making quick, nimble decisions there are edge cases not being considered and something bad is going to happen. Here are some early thoughts on how to approach these situations.

Fix the issue first

Emotions will be high and shit will be crazy, but in the heat of the moment it’s critical to fix the issue and be focused on a solution before any sort of retrospective analysis. Some of the best people I have worked with have a great ability to focus on the problem at hand and see a fix or solution through to the end, even when everything is burning down around them. It is absolutely demotivating to see others get upset and angry at them while they are in the middle of the fix. Fix, then post-mortem.

Let people think

Even after an issue is solved, let the people responsible think about the issue (and cool down) and let them get in front of the problem and own up to it. Great teams have members who act as owners, and that shouldn’t have to stop when mistakes are made. Let them own up to their mistakes.

Realize this was planned for

Most importantly, as a startup you have to realize that this was planned for in the first place. You are moving fast for a reason and, face it, cutting small corners on purpose. Don’t make a big deal out of it, start pushing blame, or act as if the person to blame has to be perfect.

Instead, recognize the mistake as a team, learn what you can from the mistake, and move on with your new and improved knowledge.