Is your organisation ready to “fail fast”?

Website failure sign, vector illustration

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.” Samuel Beckett

Fail fast is a nice alliteration – which is one of the many reasons I think it has gained such momentum in the product design space. “Succeed fast” or “iterate quickly” doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly so well.

Fail better seems only moderately more hopeful. How many times can you fail fast before you need to succeed in something? Small organisations – e.g. start-ups – might be better positioned to fail fast – if only because their idea-to-launch cycles can be quite short, and the ability to pivot more easily done.

However, this kind of attitude and behaviour is not without its own risks. After all, when you are small and trying to make your idea succeed how much capital can you afford to expend on failure? How many failures can you chalk up before someone on the other end of the purse strings demands a success? Focusing on fail fast is a bit like serial betting on horses at the track – you might accumulate a bit more data and knowledge as you fail, but in the end you still pin your chances on one horse hopefully, eventually, coming first.

And what about larger organisations? They might have the money and teams to fail fast, but what about their design and delivery process? Is it set up to “fail fast”? Or does failing fast mean going through a risk and security process, into UAT, marketing, a release cycle, launch and then analysis of endless data points to ascertain failure – what is fast about this process?

These kinds of organisations often comfort themselves that they have built innovation teams who are responsible for delivering a fail fast process. But these teams are often made up of either people from within the organisation who have shown some degree of enthusiasm for delivering something quickly, or kids – because we know that all kids are innovative and tech savvy. Right?

In reality most people in innovation teams are too afraid themselves to become entrepreneurs, come up with their own idea, and then struggle to iterate it into something successful. In truth, most are assigned an idea, pursue it for a short time, and move onto another idea. This gives the semblance that organisations have created an innovative, fail fast culture, when in reality they have created artifice at the front-end of a laborious delivery process.

“Pretending to embrace failure when you don’t is disingenuous and potentially dangerous.” Rob Asghar – Forbes

Organisations should look to embrace the ability to learn from their mistakes and their successes. They shouldn’t be afraid to engage their staff, vendors and their Customers to try and mitigate mistakes. They shouldn’t confuse something that failed due to being a bad idea with something that failed due to poor design. Some of these things they could have mitigated by following a Human centred design process instead of repeating a fail fast mantra that left them holding an empty bag.

I do believe in following lean design processes. I also believe that it is a dangerous short-cut to launch before you look – is your organisation really so fragile that taking a little bit of extra time to iterate before you build, to co-create with colleagues and customers, to run some testing, is better than launching and failing – and still not knowing why?

Fail fast can be a mantra for the impatient, uttered by the ignorant. Under those circumstances it becomes a dangerous for your business and confusing for your customers. And keep in mind, it’s not just the idea, service or product – or the way you are delivering it – that has failed – it is your Customer’s ability or desire to engage with it. You might learn something, but will they put up with a culture of fail fast where they become the guinea pigs?

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