"Fail fast, fail forward" as a method

Published: 2022-11-22

A stinging feeling, perhaps even shame. These are things we usually associate with failure, but when senior lecturer Stein Kleppestø talks about failure, the tone is different. What does he mean, and what is the point of failure? "We need to broaden the picture of failure to find the solutions to the complex sustainability challenges."

Fail fast, fail forward

"In our capacity as educators we have conveyed the idea that change is something that can be controlled. However, the goal of many of my courses is for students to evolve and adopt a new way of thinking. To make students understand that they need to allow themselves to fail, and that they become lighthouses that attract others, and through synergies achieve far greater impact than if they had stood alone." Stein continues:
"Being a lighthouse is to attract the attention of people who can help in different ways, without necessarily forcing them to do it in a specific way. Our students are entering a world of complex problems, in which they will get lost if they think in similar ways to previous generations. So one thing I try to do early on in the courses is to “shake the students up” to open up space to start playing with the idea that these incredibly complex problems need to be solved in ways other than the traditional ones. Most recently, this shaking up consisted of giving the students alternative notions of why the controlled model is going wrong. One of the exercises was to have the students work in a model where they had to come up with five action points to get started. The students' suggestion then becomes, for example, to collect facts, but the follow-up question then becomes; how can they know which facts to collect? Another common suggestion is that they brainstorm, but what effect will they have if they don't include more people in their brainstorming? The risk is that these ordinary ways of thinking lead to ordinary solutions, and if we are to change, we must have new solutions."

Team as a verb

Another technique Stein uses is to work on the team spirit of student groups.
"We need to help the students build enough trust in the group, so that they can quickly find ways of thinking that follow the expression "good enough for now, safe enough to try". They shouldn't discuss on and on, but dare to try out ideas before they have thought it through. They need to ask themselves "do we need to discuss it more; can't we just try and fail?". Getting to that attitude is in turn linked to another newspeak concept called "teaming", that teams are something you do rather than something you are. If the group becomes more confident and better at "teaming", then they are more likely to let go of the ropes and create change.
Another thing I’m focusing on is that if there are seven in a work group now, there will be 27 in a month. It needs to be a catalytic process that they don't have control over, that has some staying power, and that has an acceptance of the different perspectives and attempts. As long as you try, you are free to do what you want. Most people have not been in many such situations."

Fear of failure

In the conversation with Stein, we are constantly moving around failure, what is failure, that it is valuable to fail. So of course, the question is; How do you dare to fail? After all, it is something most people are afraid to do.
"Then you have to consider that in the usual way of doing projects, there is still a risk that the project fails. In fact, it has done so this far in sustainability anyway, which is why we are in the position we are in. But of course, the ordinary way of thinking makes you feel like you are in control, then if project fails, at least you felt in was in control all the time! But is that really the point?"
Stein continues:
"An easy way into the “Fail fast, fail forward” thinking is to start by defining failure. Ask yourself, 'When do I choose to see something as a failure, and when is it just an attempt that didn't work out'. We often have the idea that failure can be avoided if I just get my act together. If I fail, I have therefore done something stupid or wrong. But if we liberate the idea by saying that there is no possibility of getting it right on the first try, but that the task is to come up with many different ideas, failure takes on a different perspective. By coming to terms with defining success as an ability to want and try things, most of which will not work, we can ultimately get further."

Stein Kleppestø

Stein Kleppestø researches leadership and methods to improve capability.

Read more about Stein's research here (portal.research.lu.se)

"Fail fast, fail forward" in practice

Stein's methods are used, among other places, in the Change Maker Future Track, a non-credit track offered to selected master's students at the School of Economics and Management. Practical training in a co-creation setting with external organisations.
Read more about Change Maker Future Track (lusem.lu.se)