There is a worrying trend amongst large enterprises that are adopting agile ways of working -the adoption of the 'fail fast' mantra. Many Silicon Valley start-ups are using it as their guiding principle, to help them achieve product-market fit before running out of funding. But it’s not a concept that is directly transferrable to big companies.
Driving the wrong outcomes and behaviours
If you're going to fail, of course it’s a good idea to do it quickly - no business wants to spend months investing in projects that are doomed to failure, or products that nobody wants. But the problem is the emphasis is placed on failure, not success and can lead you to give up on something too early. Big ideas that may initially appear flawed can, after a pivot or two, become huge successes with perseverance.
Normally, larger enterprises can afford to invest more time and resources to fully assess the potential success of an opportunity before pulling the plug. This is a major advantage that big companies have over many start-ups. So why give it up? Steve Jobs said it best, “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones, is pure perseverance.”
There is a lot of common sense behind the notion of ‘fail fast’, or ‘fail early’ as it’s sometimes called. Having a structured approach to innovation that enables you to test new ideas rapidly and to discard those that aren’t working is absolutely the right model. But the problem is it drives the wrong behaviours. To ‘fail’ means to not succeed. So, if that’s what you set out to achieve then there is only going to be one outcome. Failure has almost become a badge of honour in Silicon Valley and maybe this is one reason why only very few start-ups actually make it.
Not everything needs to fail in order for you to learn and get better. The risk with talking about failure is the negative connotations and the knock-on effect it can have on people and their motivations. How does an organisation define what they mean by failure? Is it well established and understood where the boundaries lie between what is deemed to be an acceptable failure and what isn’t?
Big companies should learn and succeed quickly
Don’t be fooled by the hip and trendy ‘fail fast’ gurus. Yes, it’s a catchy phrase that has become en vogue for entrepreneurs, but when executives from large, established firms utter these words, it only serves to create the ‘Dad at the Disco’ affect. Whilst it’s good that they are showing enthusiasm, it’s actually quite cringe-worthy. When it comes to big companies there is a balance to be struck. So, when adopting agile approaches your mantra should be a more familiar one like, ‘continually improve’.
The mechanics of any agile process should incorporate feedback loops, from the outset and throughout. This ensures views can be shared and learned, always with the aim of getting better outcomes - with faster and cheaper being the most typical. Retrospective evaluation should be positive yet analytical i.e. ‘That was a good process, so what do we know now that we didn’t know before? What can we do better next time?’ This proactive approach will keep improving those things that already work, as well as identifying those that don’t to ensure you avoid them in future.
So make mistakes quickly, learn and succeed. But don’t encourage or celebrate failure because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy and will probably mean you miss opportunities. Instead, create an environment in which it’s okay to make mistakes, to test and to take risks, but always with the aim of succeeding. As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that did not work.”