Understanding Fail Fast

Most conversations around developing in an Agile way are paired with the concept of ‘Fail Fast’, a trendy term to say with a boldness and confidence that warrants no retort. There is method in the madness but too often the term is thrown around with wreckless abandon in the same way that some teams find that the closest they actually get to being Agile is when the boss says, “We’re Agile”.

Fail Fast combines a negative word with a positive one, which should plant a seed that blossoms into a conversation resulting in a collective understanding and commitment to the philosophy. ‘Learn Fast’ might be more appropriate but frankly it lacks the excitement and contradiction of the former.

To Fail Fast is to appreciate and value short cycles of testing and incremental development designed to determine whether an idea has value. Should an idea be invested in further or should the idea be dropped with the organisation cutting it’s losses. The converse of moving in this way is to Fail Slow, a doubly negative connotation that actually reasonably describes traditional waterfall.

Traditional waterfall plays the odds against an uncertain future by promising delivery of an idea believed to return value in a more distant future than the short term cycle associated with Scrum, for example.

When a project fails over a long period there is a silver lining in that the project has helped an organisation Learn Slow. This is not a situation any person likes to be in.

So organisations want to Succeed Fast, but that is a devious statement to believe is possible in its own right. It promises that lessons have already been learned and a team’s information is complete and infallible, allowing the team to breeze through a project lifecycle never changing course. Course change is key in any project, only the deluded believe everything will go to plan.

No person gets in their car or on the train and knows that a traffic jam or tree on the lines will not hamper their progress. Meetings may be moved location and participants could fall ill, all information that must at some point be learned and in most cases only at an occasion when course correction must be managed to deliver. If a future impediment could be known, it would be called out in the plan before starting. Never in my career have I seen a Gantt chart that calls out even 1 known impediment before the information is available.

Markets change and competitors pivot, you do not want to be the type of organisation that like a tanker is too heavy to course correct effectively to compete with other vessels. The smaller more nimble boats are able to respond to changing conditions of the sea and weather to take learn and take action quickly.

When an iteration completes it should be seen as a positive whether we find an idea continues to make sense, just as much as an idea that needs to be dropped immediately. Sunken cost is the immediate reaction many have, believing that if we just through a bit more effort of time and money at the problem we might find the solution come into view. Rational inspection of the idea following a period of assessment should overrule emotional influences, by appreciating that the investment we have made so far was a worthwhile endeavour that would either pay towards a valued venture or confirm an idea is not worth investing further in.

Fail Fast should not be used loosely without fully understanding and clearly articulating to decision making parties in an organisation. It sounds trendy for the times but it is a buzzword on its own that should be used as a jumping off point to discuss further and gain buy-in from stakeholders before diving in. Manage expectations because nothing comes for free and people don’t mind bad news so long as they know about it at the earliest opportunity and not at the last minute when there is no time to change course.

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