Failing Fast and Learning to Harness Highly Decentralized Courage

By Daniel Forrester, CEO

The fall is well upon us. As it speeds along, I’ve been thinking about an innovation strategy that many purpose-driven organizations embrace and my team often promotes: “failing fast” to learn even faster. Innovation requires you to be fearless about trying bold ideas, promoting and questioning orthodoxy, and openly acknowledging the risks inherent in massive “big bet” projects. Failing fast requires leaders who are willing to push down and decentralize, leaders who understand that a little bet is powerful and can emerge to become something very big. Failing fast also means organizations can walk away from projects that don’t gain traction. To follow the “fail fast” strategy is sensible and inspiring.

Kevin Spacey at the Netflix "House of Cards" Season 2 Special Screening, DGA, Los Angeles, CA 02-13-14

On the other side of failing fast are larger projects that take high risks and can up-end entire industries over time. Netflix, for example, recently placed a massive, multi-year bet on House of Cards. Kevin Spacey, star and executive producer of the riveting drama, revealed during AARP’s annual event that Netflix was the only production house willing to take the series on as a multi-year deal. Several other production houses offered to do a pilot, but Netflix decided to give “full creative reign” to the show. In doing this, Netflix made a massive, multi-year bet that gave the House of Cards team creative authority to dismiss the sometimes stifling pilot methods often used to get a television series off the ground.

What you see between the two methods (failing fast and long-term risk-taking) is that change and innovation can happen at the incremental level and the expansive level. Both methods have merit in the right context, as long as high-performing teams stand ready to execute them. I believe that there is no such thing as a linear innovation pathway. No innovation agenda takes root without leadership, clarity, diverse skill sets, quality inputs, and massive amounts of highly decentralized courage. Courage is the only antidote to overcoming the fear of failure tugging at all of us.

I will conclude with a quote from Beau Willimon, House of Cards creator. His words so eloquently summarize the idea of failing fast while epitomizing the grit of harnessing decentralized courage:

“When you give artists the opportunity to make what they want to make, place faith in them, allow them to take risks, to push boundaries, to even flirt with failure and take those risks, then you’re going to get the best possible work, because that’s what they thirst for.”

(Quote from an article interview on

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