"Failing Fast" - What does it mean, and how do you make it a good thing?

Eugene LaiTue, 07/21/2020 - 10:38

If you are familiar with Agile principles, you have probably heard the term “fail fast”. What does this really mean? If you are trying to convince your management to adopt Agile practices, is “failing fast” an effect message to use to sell them on this approach?

Seasoned Agile practitioners will likely suggest that working in short increments accelerates the feedback loop, hence allowing you and your team to learn more quickly by “failing”. I’m not sure I agree with this thinking 100%, and here are a few reasons why.

Wright Brothers

While I agree that we generally learn more when we fail than when we succeed, failing in itself does not automatically lead to learning. We need to do additional work to take advantage of an opportunity to learn, which is what failure gives us. With such an opportunity, as with all opportunities, it can be squandered, which is what many new Agile teams do due to lack of coaching support.

So, what can we do to ensure we are taking advantage of this special opportunity to gain valuable insights?

  1. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture. When something does not go right with our project, there must have been some decision that led to the outcome. There are exceptions of course; we cannot predict natural disasters but we could have mitigated its effects on the project. Determining how the failure occurred requires us to leverage other tools such as “5 Why’s” or other techniques for root cause analysis. Until we identify the root cause, it is very difficult to prevent the same mistake or issue from occurring again in the future.
  2. Revisit strategic objectives. Did the failure occur because of lack of clarity on the desired outcome? It may be beneficial to revisit our desired end state to ensure there is still alignment.
  3. Assess the timeliness of the “failure”. Could this situation have been observed sooner? Was the feedback loop quick enough for us to learn, or do we need to shorten the cycle further?

Nobody likes to fail. We all take pride is solving challenging problems, but the world is full of unpredictable environments and conditions which makes things more interesting, providing plenty of opportunities to learn more about the domain and about ourselves. Next time something does not go well, see what you can learn from it, and adapt your people, processes, and/or tools where it makes sense.