Failing fast? No, just failing

Failing fast is one of those great catchwords that’s bandied around, but many of us are just failing, fast or otherwise.

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Failing fast is the buzzword in large and small companies alike, Silicon Valley to Silicon Roundabout.  The idea is that the earlier in the process you fail, the cheaper it is to do so.

From niche startups to FTSE 100 companies, failing fast is bandied around like it’s the nirvana of product management, the road to successful commercial products.

These theory goes that it’s easier to reject an innovative new car design etched out on the back of a cigarette packet than it is one which is in production already, and out on the market.  The earlier ideas are rejected, the cheaper they are, the more we learn.

Thus goes the theory, but is it true?

We’re not talking here about whether companies actually fail fast.  Most love to talk about it, but don’t actually practice it.  As soon as something fails, there’s a blame culture.

Blame by itself is no bad thing.  However, the knowledge that blame will be handed out, potentially relatively indiscriminately, will lead people to avoid being seen as having failed.

It takes a huge amount of bravery to be the person who requested a million dollars of hard earned cash from an angel investor, or worse, your manager and board, and then bet it all on a failed project.  to hold your hands up and say something didn’t work means taking the responsibility.

Companies need to understand that a million dollars on a failed project is better than 10 million dollars on a project which got even farther.  Was it 10 million dollars worth of learning?  If so, it hasn’t been wasted. When that environment doesn’t exist, people very on with a failed project rather than be seen to fail. As a result, projects fail later, and at greater cost, then they need to.

Irrespective of any blame culture, most startup CEO’s commit to their product/ baby beyond any reasonable product development need.  It wouldn’t matter if their best friends tell them it’s a terrible idea to have a two wheel car, they’ll continue developing anyway, blaming customers for a lack of vision, rather than themselves for failing to spot a failure.

Agile and failing fast

Another myth wandering around is that agile is all about failing fast.  It isn’t.  Though it may provide an avenue to do so, it’s more about doing the right things at the right time, and no more than that.

If you have a design that isn’t working, it should remain just that, design.

All the benefits

One of the other misdemeanors in this area is failing to quantify and qualify what failure means.  The shoe polish in a shoe shop may be a great seller or not selling much.  It may be selling at a discount.  Though perhaps objectively failing, it brings customers into the store and interacting with the brand.

The same idea goes for success, which is often defined improperly.  Too often it’s defined in terms of what’s easily quantifiable instead of what should actually be quantified.  Clicks and impressions are easy to detect for an online ad, but many ads are wildly unsuccessful on this metric, and another may be more appropriate.

In the long run

The logic of failing fast, failing cheap, sounds so easy, a three year old could explain it.  Simplicity of concept doesn’t equate to truth though.

Some products which may look like a failure in the design stage may in fact be great products when implemented.  They may stand up better in a different market or alongside another product.  They may stand up better when an additional six months of thought has been put into them, or when the deep thought that comes from actual development takes place.

Failing fast sometimes means replacing future success with current failure.


Failing fast then, is often no more than a moniker for just failing, a way of leaving good ideas behind, as well as bad.

It’s a way of causing that plane crash then, as much as preventing it.