Why the “Fail Fast” Philosophy Doesn’t Work

This guest post is written by Dan McClure, the Innovation Design Lead at ThoughtWorks.

Sometimes it seems Eric Ries could have saved himself a lot of trouble when writing The Lean Startup by just printing the phrase “fail fast” on a stack of post-it notes and sending them out to innovation teams around the world.

The book has ample content worth studying, but almost every week I meet business leaders who have concluded that simply giving teams permission to “fail fast” is the secret to unlocking product innovation.

That’s too bad, because “fail fast” when taken literally is easily one of the least useful concepts for real life enterprise innovators.  The phrase “learn quickly and think well” is a far more powerful mantra for would-be innovation leaders.   


Not enough monkeys

Taken at face value, “fail fast” has a very narrow range of applicability.  It’s a good tool for filtering and rejecting ideas.  For example, if you’re a product owner with a backlog of a potential 100 improvements, but can only afford to take three into production, then being able to quickly cull the list is a fine skill.  Make a hypothesis and quickly AB test it.  Failing fast avoids wasted investments.

Exploring unknown new business opportunities might seem like another use case where hypothesis testing and killing off the laggards is valuable. For example, when trying to discover a disruptive new product idea, it would seem that the quicker dead-ends can be ruled out the better.    

That’s true to an extent. If your only strategy for exploring the unknown is to pick up rocks and look underneath, then the more rocks you turn over the better. The problem is that for real world innovations, test and reject doesn’t scale well. For disruptive ideas with the potential to make a difference in the market there are lots and lots of rocks.   

The late Berkeley Professor Robert Wilensky quipped, 

We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare.  Now thanks to the Internet, we know this isn’t true.”  

No matter how fast we fail, stumbling across a masterwork, whether in literature or product innovation, is improbable at best.    

Failure really isn’t an option

There is another hard reality.  Most organizations don’t get to make an unlimited number of bets on the marketplace.  At some point they need to commit resources at an enterprise scale. If you are working in a garage on a mobile app with three friends from college, your ability to discard ideas is limited only by your continued willingness to survive on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.    

Now what if you have been hired by a global enterprise faced with disruptive competitors?  There is still market uncertainty but also a great deal of complexity in any response you make.  You may need to integrate product offerings into legacy systems, break through regulatory barriers, and marshal multi-disciplinary teams from across the organization.  All the while sharks circle in the marketplace.  You can still fail fast in small ways, but broad failure really isn’t an option.

Individuals have “can’t fail” scenarios too.  Imagine you passionately believe in an idea that breaks the business norms of your organization.  You stay up late, put yourself on the line, and call in all the favors you’ve earned.  Can you afford to literally fail fast when a barrier is thrown in your path?

Learn quickly and think well

Discovering blockers and misconceptions is the easy part of creating.  Let’s say you’ve just jumped out of a plane, the rip cord to your single parachute tightly gripped in your hand.  Assume you take the fail fast message seriously and pull the cord as soon as possible.  How much is the information that your parachute has failed worth at this point? Unless you do something valuable with the knowledge, simply failing fast is not a productive strategy.

There is a more powerful (if less pithy) mantra for real world innovation.  It’s “Learn Quickly and Think Well”.   With each hypothesis tested, extract wisdom.  What went wrong?  What new things do we know about the world?  Why?  Why?  Why?  

Then take that knowledge and use it to think well, shaping an effective path forward that pivots but does not fail.   

New talents are required from teams that have gotten good at filling Kanban walls with hypotheses to test.  There is great value in mastering:

  • Root Cause Insights – There is little actionable information in the fact that users didn’t like a product.  What matters is the reason why.

  • Synthesis and Integration – It’s easy to test simple things.  It’s harder, but ultimately more profitable, to deal with the complexity that comes from combining diverse domains and many moving parts.  

  • Synergy and Elegance – 2+2=4 is for suckers. Combine two things to do more than either can in isolation.

  • Clever Circumvention – Don’t solve the problem presented to you. Discover a way to go around.

Teams accustomed to a series of fail fast experiments may find it hard to embrace these messy skills. They are not turn-the-crank activities.  Shifting the perspective to insightful learning and developing genuinely thoughtful responses can emerge as one of the hardest things an innovation team can do.

Create competitive advantage

Victor Hugo said that it is impossible to resist an idea whose time has come.  Today, in a hyper-creative world every good idea surely has dozens of teams pursuing it.  There is little chance that a Brazilian team in Porto Alegre is starting from a dramatically different place than teams in Beijing, London, or Austin.

So who wins?  Speed matters, but it will be the team that gets the greatest insight from their testing investment and then designs the best pivot toward greater value that really excels.

It will be the organizations, teams, and individuals who go beyond simply failing fast to become masters of Learning Quickly and Thinking Well.

Thanks again for this post from Dan. You can read the rest of Dan’s thinking on the future of innovation on the ThoughtWorks blog.   

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