Blog Post: How Do You Define ‘Fail’?

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If we’re going to puff up our chests and be all macho about it, nobody really wants to fail at anything. You’re reading the words of a man who doesn’t have patience when I have to explain something twice — regardless of how well I articulated my point. The minute my wife challenges an opinion, I get defensive and wonder why the world is conspiring against me. When I finish a scrum ceremony with one single misaligned expectation, I grit my teeth and wish I still smoked and drank.

Good news, though. None of those scenarios describe true failure.

That’s why I feel for statements like this from Pandora CTO Tom Conrad:

“There’s this motto in our industry that says fail fast and fail often,” he stated at a recent summit. “But none of us can actually do that right? We have all kinds of constituents — employees, investors, users — they are expecting you to do smart things, not dumb things. So one of the first things I said was let’s not pretend we can just try things and some will work out and some won’t. That’s not winning, that’s losing.”

Bold words, and he should be taken seriously when there is a new app started every day trying to destroy Pandora. Yet, there they still are. To this day, my wife still prefers them to Spotify, iTunes Radio, Slacker, or any other usurper. Problem is, I would argue his words amount to little more than posturing for the press. Like any other successful company in the tech industry, Pandora could make a list a mile long of missteps along the way to fame. I could point to the ever-evolving algorithm, as point one.

Without knowing him personally, or witnessed this statement live, I can only speculate what he meant. If we leveled our understanding of the word “failure”, I think he would say the same thing agile coaches state every day:

There’s nothing wrong with failing.

Maybe you hear the latest single from Arcade Fire too often. The button you added for Google authentication probably wasn’t placed in the right place. Perhaps iPhone users want all sounds muted when they flip the switch, that means you too videos. Those are all pieces of failure. 

This applies to technical requirements, interpersonal relationship management, business behavior, and so on. What Pandora is thankful for is the fact that they have learned from little failures every day to stay on their lofty perch. Yes, the brand doesn’t quite have the punch it used to, but many leaders in Silicon Valley will tell you that staying alive is winning. Conrad may see “failing fast” as losing, but I would take the opportunity to pivot over shutting my doors any day.

Stop being afraid of putting your failures out there. Your peers will see your transparency and respect the fact that you are growing and learning through them. Those are the people I want to work with — and who’s products I really want to use.

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