What Do We Mean By Fail Fast?
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One of the things I’d like to do in these blogs is look at some of the parts of agile thinking that are creeping into the mainstream of digital media at the moment, almost separate from the core ideas of agile itself. One of these is the idea of failing fast, that if you’re doing any activity, especially one you haven’t done before or in a context you haven’t previously tried it, then you need to fail fast.
In essence, by failing fast we mean trying something, and if it doesn’t work, we either ditch it quickly or quickly tweak it and try again.
On the face of it, that’s a good thing. If something’s not going to work, it’s as best to learn that quickly before too much time, effort and money has been wasted on it. Equally, the faster you can learn what doesn’t work, the faster you can find out what does work, and start doing more of it. Agile is all about evolving your approach to make the most of complex, fast-paced and uncertain environments, so failing fast is an excellent adaptive approach for operating in that kind of context.
However, if you’re coming to agile from a more traditional mindset, then I think it’s really easy to get the idea of fail fast wrong. After all, traditionally, no-one likes to fail. To fail is to do something wrong. Failing is something we have drilled into us from the earliest age not to do. We must always do better. We must always avoid losing. We must never fail our exams.
This is true of most people, but it’s especially true of people working in marketing, advertising and communications. Those are entire industries set up to put the best gloss on anything and everything. For people in these industries, it’s second nature to accentuate the positive and avoid any mention of negative things like failure.
So we end up with a situation where we don’t like to fail, and if we do fail, we certainly don’t like to talk about it. As a result, fail fast takes on a new meaning. Rather than being about getting to a failure as quickly as possible, inspecting what happened and adapting what you do before trying it again, it becomes about failing then moving on as quickly as possible from any discussion of that failure. To fail fast ends up meaning to move away from the failure, and any discussion of it, as quickly as possible.
However, talking about the failure should be exactly what failing fast is about. You want to get to the failure as quickly as possible, but once you’ve got to it, then you shouldn’t be afraid to spend some time thinking about it. Now, don’t spend so long that you don’t go back out quickly with an adapted approach to see if that performs any better, but don’t be afraid to go back to failures time and again to think about them and compare them with other failures.
In short, fail fast means getting to the failure fast, not getting away from it fast. Record every failure you get for posterity, share news about it widely, even celebrate it openly. In an agile world, failure is something that makes you better than your competitors, not worse. Race fast towards it, not fast away from it.