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Does Failing Fast Really Mean to Fail?

What Does Fail Fast Really Mean

Anthony Mersino

July 31, 2023

3:16 PM

A few years ago I wrote about the danger of too much work in process under the guise of failing fast. The post was meant to highlight the danger of too much work in progress and the lack of prioritization that many organizations pursue.

This article is really about failing and failing fast.

Failing Fast Came from Kent Beck and Extreme Programming

Kent Beck popularized the phrase “Fail Fast”, or at least that is what I always believed. However, a quick search of Kent Beck’s 2004 book on Extreme Programming didn’t show any instances of failing fast.

Extreme Programming Explained - Kent Beck - Includes failure

The book does have a few great statements about failing including “When you don’t know what to do though, risking failure can be the shortest, surest road to success.” Beck also said this:

If you’re having trouble succeeding, fail. Don’t know which of three ways to implement a story? Try it all three ways. Even if they all fail, you’ll certainly learn something valuable. Isn’t failure waste? No, not if it imparts knowledge. Knowledge is valuable and sometimes hard to come by. Failure may not be avoidable waste. If you knew the best way to implement the story you’d just implement it that way. Given that you don’t already know the best way, what’s the cheapest way to find out?

— Beck, Kent; Andres, Cynthia. Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change (2004) 

And Beck wasn’t alone in talking about failure. Over 100 years before Beck created Extreme Programming, inventor Thomas Edison said this about his attempts to create the first incandescent light bulb:

I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

— Thomas Edison

Failing Fast is Popular Today

Today there are many variations of Failing Fast today. They include:

  • Move Quickly and Break Things attributed to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerman
  • Fail Faster and Succeed Sooner attributed to David Kelley of IDEO
  • Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward attributed to leadership expert John C Maxwell
  • Fail Fast and Fail Often – unknown
  • Failures are a sign that you are inventing – attributed to Elon Musk
  • Fail Fast, Fail Forward, and Fail Wisely – unknown
  • Fail Fast, Fail Forward, Fail Openly – attributed to Rebecca C. Sindall and Dani J. Barrington
  • Fail Better – attributed to Samuel Beckett

That is a lot of encouragement to fail. Let’s explore a few of these.

Failing Forward

It is only recently that I began hearing the phrase fail forward. The term originated with leadership expert John C Maxwell and his 2007 book of that name.

Failing Forward - John Maxwell

The point of the book is that the journey to success requires that you try many things, make mistakes, and from that process, you learn how to succeed.

I really like that because it describes the natural process that humans go through. We do it all the time without ever being taught. Don’t believe me? Check out this incredibly cute 2-minute video of children learning to walk.

Babies Learn to Walk by Failing Often

We aren’t babies. But we can approach new learning like a child. We can try with enthusiasm. We can run experiments. Learn. Make adjustments. And try some more.

Wayne Gretzky is credited with this great quote about trying:

You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.

— Wayne Gretzky

Does Your Company Embrace Failure?

For all the great sloganeering that many organizations do, few truly embrace failure. Oh, they talk a good game about how wonderful failing is but when the rubber hits the road, do they really salute your work when you fail? More likely you will be ushered into a manager’s office Zoom room to explain just “What in the hell were you thinking?”

In one of the companies I worked for recently, they would have these fire calls every time there was a major production issue. The use of the term “fire call” was an unnecessary escalation of the event. If you were the poor programmer identified as responsible for the outage, you would be expected to stay on the entire fire call and endure a line of questioning like something out of the CIA’s secret torture manual.

Of course, there are other more humane organizations that treat mistakes as part of learning. Etsy is known for its blame-free retrospectives. And to his credit, Elon Musk seems to be taking seriously his advice that “Failures are a sign that you are inventing”. At Twitter Musk added check marks, took them away, fired many of the staff, alienated advertisers, and even changed the company name to X.  He seems to be inventing away with passion!

What will you try today?

I think we can all agree that failing is part of learning, and not something to fear. So what would you try today if you didn’t have to worry about failing?

A few years ago I was taking guitar lessons. I casually mentioned to my instructor that I would love to be able to sing and play my guitar at the same time but I considered myself a poor singer. Immediately he stopped my lesson, took me down the hall to the voice coach, and said to sing something for her. I was flustered, embarrassed, and put on the spot. I felt stripped naked and sure to fail as I improvised and sang something.

While it felt like a failure in that moment, I learned that I did not die. I went on to take voice lessons for a few months and gained the confidence that with proper coaching, I could learn to sing.

And if I can learn to sing, I can learn to do pretty much anything else.

Given all the encouragement to try and fail, what will you try today? Is there something you can do in your personal or professional life that you could try just to see what you can learn? I encourage you to try something and post your results below.

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