The point about "failing fast"

”Fail fast to succeed sooner”. Unless you live in a cave, you’ve probably heard this motto, most likely from a self-acclaimed innovation guru or an intrapreneur with slicked back hair. Especially for people with a corporate background, the underlying wisdom may be hard to appreciate, and so the motto is usually taken as Silicon Valley mumbo jumbo glorifying bankruptcies and wasteful spending of investors’ money. This is unfortunate, as “failing fast” is a point of view that works very well in corporate settings, too.

“Failing fast” works very well in corporate settings, too

One of the key insights for corporates to understand about “fail fast” is that it’s an ideological twin to the best practice of discovery-driven planning. If McGrath and MacMillan’s framework helps the team identify the most probable showstoppers, then “fail fast” directs the team to sequence the go to market procedure so as to confront said showstoppers as early and as cheaply as possible.

Let’s assume that Arimacorp has a new product idea. After three days of brainstorming, sauna, and discovery-driven planning, our team knows that the only way the product will work at scale is if it sells through a digital channel with a conversion rate of no less than 5%. Armed with this information, the team can now focus their efforts to try and fail fast. After two months of furious coding and optimization, the team is unable to push conversions above 4%. The steering committee declares failure. The team returns to the planning table to develop a version of the product that works with a lower conversion rate, or an entirely different sales channel.

What didn’t happen in our example? No new division was formed, the organization was not scaled, no marketing expenses incurred (except the small amount required to drive traffic to test the channel). The dual approach of discovery driven planning and failing fast saved a lot of time and money. Better yet, while the first attempt failed, the product idea itself is still alive and, having crossed off a potential approach as unworkable, one step closer to success.

The second key insight to understand is that while the maxim encourages failure, the ultimate goal is to avoid failure altogether. By failing fast, you’re learning fast how not to fail. Yes, I know it sounds like a zen koan, but bear with me.

By failing fast, you’re learning fast how not to fail

Imagine that you’re driving a Porsche (let’s say it’s a super safe Porsche, so no one dies in this example). You’re on a highway, going fast. And the windshield is pitch black, so there’s no forward visibility whatsoever. Now, how do you know if you’re driving towards a brick wall? To be honest, I don’t know either, but I bet that once you’ve crashed a couple of times, you start to pick up on the signs. With enough practice, you’ll develop a sense that enables you to change directions and keep going faster than anyone else.  

The same goes for business. You want to identify and navigate the brick walls as early as possible, so that afterwards you can just floor it and enjoy the ride. And that’s the point about failing fast.

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There's a lot of useful stuff for corporations in the Lean Startup and Customer Development frameworks. I'd be glad to tell you all about it. You can get in touch here.

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Image credit: Karl Baron @ Flickr under CC BY 2.0