Get unstuck: Seek fast failure!

Get unstuck: Seek fast failure!
Written by: Karl Sakas

Are you afraid of failure? I don’t blame you—it’s uncomfortable, and often feels shameful. Yet admitting you failed—even privately to your team—means you can move on. This gets you closer to what you really want—and fast failure is key.

Adopting a policy of fast failure will help you get unstuck so you can reach your agency’s goals faster.

Fast failure = focusing on the future

The “fast failure” concept comes from pharmaceutical development—if a pharma company is developing a new drug and it becomes clear the drug would never get approved, the company will pull the plug rather than keep going.

With fast failure, you’re making a decision about the future, and you ignore the seductive (yet irrelevant) sunk costs.

If you’ve spent a billion dollars and the drug isn’t going to work, don’t spend another billion dollars out of pride—it’s better to put that second billion toward something with a better ROI. (If you have billions of dollars, of course!)

This is true in relationships, too—if it becomes clear things aren’t going to work, stop. We all have that friend in a dead-end relationship who keeps trying to make it work, yet it’s clear to outsiders (and perhaps even to them) that no amount of heroic efforts could make things work.

How can you apply fast failure at your agency? Let’s look at a few examples!

Examples: Fast failure at agencies

Fast failure works in agency sales, marketing, account management, project management, hiring, employee management, and more. Here are some examples:

  • Fast failure in agency sales: A prospect doesn’t have sufficient budget? Refer them elsewhere. A prospect doesn’t have a budget yet? Don’t send them a full proposal! A prospect isn’t ready to buy? Put them in a nurture sequence and stop focusing on them one-on-one.
  • Fast failure in marketing: Using tactics that aren’t working? Stop using them, or adjust instead of assuming they’ll magically start working. Find your lead funnel assumptions are no longer accurate? Change your assumptions!
  • Fast failure in account management: Has the client hired a new CMO? Accept that they’ll probably change agencies; don’t assume you’ll stay. Got a client who continues to be unreasonable? Stop trying to placate them—or at least set an internal trigger for what it would take to fire them.
  • Fast failure in agency PM: If a client is over budget, pause to regroup. If you’ve started doing free revisions and they’re getting out of hand, don’t keep doing free revisions—you can stop. If you realize you mis-scoped something, stop—at a minimum, regroup internally on what to do, so losses are intentional rather than careless.
  • Fast failure in agency hiring: If a candidate shows you red flags, don’t keep moving them forward. If your initial outreach hasn’t produced quality candidates for a critical role, don’t hire the “best of the worst”—identify how to reboot the process and start over.
  • Fast failure in employee management: If a new employee isn’t meeting their onboarding ramp-up plan, give them another chance (or two), but don’t keep them if they keep getting further behind; things won’t magically get better. If a long-time employee is no longer a fit, don’t keep them onboard out of momentum; you owe it to yourself to have the best employees you can afford.

What other examples can you identify for fast failure at agencies?

Tips on using Fast failure at your agency

Intrigued by the concept of fast failure, but aren’t sure where to start—or scared about the impacts? Consider these tips:

  1. Explore your concerns about fast failure—what scares you? What’s the worst that might happen? What’s the best?
  2. Identify milestones or other automatic “triggers” to help you decide whether it’s time for fast failure. Don’t wait until you’re buried in a situation to define your acceptance criteria.
  3. Recruit accountability partners to help you stay on track. This can help you overcome old coping mechanisms that may be holding you back.
  4. Adopt “fast failure” as a mindset, but don’t try to change everything at once—start in one area of your agency and then expand.
  5. What risks will you need to mitigate if you pursue this shift? For instance, don’t fire clients without building a plan to replace the revenue first.

Question: How might fast failure help you and your agency get unstuck?

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