I'm so tired of reading about and constantly being lectured on the virtues of failing fast that I'm beginning to wonder whether the phrase is an embedded Swift Key on mobile keypads, or a built-in slide automatically inserted into PowerPoint and Keynote presentations. But, as I've said many times, there's no fun in failing (See Who Said Failure Was Fashionable?). And it's no badge of honor to lose, although I don't think that, for young entrepreneurs, it's really a case of losing in any event. Because even if you don't win, you learn a great deal-- as long as you're willing to listen.

Just remember that there's nothing noble about noble failures and that even the grandest failures aren't really fatal. They're just opportunities to start again, better and smarter. The truth is that you'll absolutely learn much more from your failures than your successes, although it won't feel nearly as good. And, you never want to quit too soon because, in the startup world, almost everything looks like a failure in the middle. This is why perseverance is so crucial. Things always look grimmest right before success breaks through.

So, I'd like to fire the phrase "fail fast" and replace it with something that to me is a lot more descriptive of the whole experience and the smart way to look at the process. It's not ultimately about how quickly you fail, it's all about the education, the takeaways and specifically about the mistakes you hopefully won't make again. So instead of making sure that you are failing fast, my suggestion is that you try to "fail forward" when things are headed downhill. Learn and gain in the process. Brene Brown says failure is an "imperfect" word because it's never the end of the story if you're smart. Failures turn into lessons and lessons make you better and somewhat more likely to succeed the next time around as long as you're a good listener. (See 3 Tips from Brene Brown About Failing Brilliantly)

Failing forward has all the virtues of failing fast: an awareness of opportunity costs, the ancient wisdom of "stop digging" when you find yourself deep in a hole, and an understanding that seeking the cure for no known disease or finding solutions for non-existent problems is such a sad waste of your energy and scarce resources. But an important distinction is that the idea of failing forward always looks ahead-- gets you right back up on the horse again-- and builds on the useful and valuable experiences of your prior attempts. In addition, if you handle the wind-down like a pro, you will actually make it much more likely that your next deal will be easier to get done because even failing well is an art. (Failure Happens. Four Ways to Do It Well )

Failure is almost never about a clean sweep or a complete restart--there are too many babies in the bath water to just toss the whole thing out the window. It's always an iterative process with lots of triage included. You want to preserve what worked (remembering that someone spent a lot of time and money on your last adventure), you definitely want to hang on to the people who put their hearts and souls into the program, and you want to be humble and smart enough to carefully determine what went wrong and why. Just a word to the wise about that last idea. In the vast majority of cases it will emerge that what bit you in the ass wasn't just something you weren't good enough at or something that you found out that you didn't know how to do. The cause will be something that you didn't even know that you didn't know (or hadn't thought about) that made all the difference.

The lesson here is that it's the careful research and the customer investigation-- the stuff you do before you start-- that, in the end, will turn out to have the greatest impact on the success of the business. Because real demand and customers are the whole ballgame. Everything else you can hire, fire, fix or improve as the battle progresses but, if no one wants what you're selling, there's no there there.

Published on: Oct 10, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.