The atychiphobia pandemic.

Preston Chandler

Technology Director, VMLY&R

JL Heather

Program Director, VMLY&R

In today’s world, the company that succeeds is the one that learns the fastest. And there is no better way to learn than through failure. If that concept makes you cringe, then there is a good chance you might work in the healthcare industry, and for good reason since we are in a business in which failure often results in death or serious harm. That said, your competitors in the healthcare industry who cannot find ways to leverage failure as a tool for innovation won’t be competitors for long.

Our fear of failure lets us delude ourselves into thinking that if we just plan enough, build enough process or test enough that somehow we can eliminate failure as a possibility. In reality, we are ensuring failure in the long term by attempting to eliminate failure in the short term. This extreme procedural rigor excludes the most innovative ideas, which, by their very nature, contain more unknowns and thereby lack the ability to make the business case needed to justify the expense. Our job, as leaders in the healthcare industry, therefore, is not to eliminate failure (we can’t), it’s to find ways to make failure safe.



Thankfully, professionals in the lean start-up and software industries have experience we can leverage in managing risk and leveraging failure. The principles, systems and tools they use on a daily basis are designed to eliminate the need for massive product launches and exhaustive review cycles while maintaining a laser focus on fast, bottom-line results. Learning from these professionals can help us revel in the opportunity to learn from failing and embrace phrases like “fail fast” or “failing forward.”

Have a Direction

First, “failing forward” without a direction is just failing. You must have a reason for moving, and often that reason should be simply to learn. Begin the effort with a firm plan for what you hope to learn, how you will measure success and a clear idea of what you can change to still achieve the desired result.

Small Experiments

By viewing any release to the public as an experiment, rather than a campaign or product launch, you can place value on learning in addition to success. Like any experiment in science, you must also accept the fact that new ideas fail more often than they succeed, so don’t be discouraged when “all” you get out of the experiment is new insights.

Saving up for large product launches and media blitzes set you up for failure by delaying all of the risks to the end of the project. Instead, leaders should be looking for ways to constantly correct their course. Find the smallest increment of work that can result in customer value, and test it. Rather than pushing the riskiest items (like “Will people actually use this?” and “Can we make it work?”) to the end of the project, target experiments for those items up front.

Create Rapid Feedback Loops

One of the ways to gather more frequent validation of experiments, without incurring excessive costs, is to consider many different levels of feedback. Some concepts and ideas may justify formal methods, while others could benefit from interviewing a couple of people walking down the street. Either way, early feedback, from real people on their reactions can be invaluable in reducing risk early.

Automate Noncreative Tasks

Not all failure is good. The stupid or gotcha failures are the ones that we have to avoid. One of the best ways to avoid them is to find ways to automate noncreative tasks. Style guides or copy guides can significantly reduce the time to design by allowing designers to focus their creative efforts on the new items to be tested. Where automation doesn’t make sense, involving regulatory and compliance in the design process can enrich the end solution and avoid never-ending cycles of revision.

How much potential does your organization hold back on a daily basis because you are too afraid to fail? If that potential is fully realized, how many lives could be positively impacted? How much potential can be unlocked by finding better ways to learn and by maximizing the value of the inevitable failures?