May 16, 2017

Fail fast does not mean you want to fail

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You have probably heard the expression that entrepreneurs want to “fail fast” – and that you should do the same for your business… but what does it actually mean – and do your customers want you to “fail fast”? Why would you want to fail at all? It’s important to know that fail fast does not mean you want to fail.

Firstly, the term fail-fast can also be applied to systems design (note the hyphen), where systems are designed to recognise a crash or failure and immediately take action – often to bring up an alternative system or return to an operating state without the failed/crashed component taking down the system as a whole.

The term “fail fast” should not be misunderstood that “failure” is a desirable state. Of course, no company wants to be a failure. However, failure is an important part of development and evolution of any enterprise – but only if you are willing to learn and improve because of it.

To fail fast is an attitude that small changes or improvements can be tried, but if they don’t work out, then you want to be able to quickly declare it as a failure and move on. Take the learnings and experience of the failure and move on. Take chances on new ideas, but be ready to identify if it’s not delivering any benefits so that you can stop it before it soaks up more money, time and focus. Be ready to pull the plug on something [small] that you have tried, by accepting the loss before it gets larger.

Importantly, this means that the attitude to trying new things changes. If your business accepts that the new idea might not work out, but it won’t suffer a large loss – then your business approach is more open to trying new products, services or practices. Taking a view that improvements and changes can be tried out with lower risk, new services or products can be rolled out without extensive planning – your organisation just needs to accept that a pivot to a different approach or direction is a positive.

Does this mean “give up quickly”? No, a decision of needing to fail something fast does not mean you take the attitude that you are giving up when things get hard. You always need to keep an eye on the potential, ensure that you are learning lessons (not just “it’s hard out there”) for the next time you try a new iteration or pivoted idea.

Similar to fail-fast systems design, you need to have a fall-back position that represents normal operation. If you are trying a new expenses practice – away from a printed and signed form with photocopied receipts, towards an online form where you can attach photos and assign workflows – if the new system is too difficult for users to access, or more than 90% photos of receipts are not legible, then you need to be able to quickly mark this as a failure, and change direction to a new approach – but have a fall-back position.

The antithesis of “fail fast” is to jump in with both feet and roll out something new across all customers or the whole company. The fail fast approach aligns closely with Agile methodologies of MVP (minimum viable product), and with new technologies opened up by a highly connected world. It’s not an approach that applies to everything – but it opens doors and allows a business to be more

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