Among movements like Agile, Lean Startup, and Design Thinking these days, you hear the term fail fast. The principle of failing fast is vital to efficiency, but I’ve seen project managers and business partners be offended or even agitated by the term fail fast. I’ve seen it come out like, “Why the hell would I want to fail fast?! I don’t want to fail at all.” The implication, of course: “Failing is for losers. If you’re planning to fail, then I don’t want you on my team.”
I think I can help explain why the principle of “fail fast” is so important, and maybe I can help you explain it, too.
Software developers know about fail fast already, whether they realize it or not. Yesterday was a prime example for me. It was a really long day. I didn’t leave my office until after 9pm, and then I turned my laptop back on as soon as I got home to work another three hours. I had been fighting a bug all afternoon. It was a program that ran about 90 seconds normally, but when I tried a code path that should have been much faster, I could let it run 50 times that long and it still wouldn’t finish.
At home, I ran it again and left it running while I watched the Thunder beat the Spurs, assuming the program would finish eventually, so I could see the log file (which we’re not flushing often enough, which is another problem). My MacBook Pro ran so hard that the fan compelled my son to ask me why my laptop was suddenly so loud. I was wishing the whole time, “I wish this thing would fail faster.” And there it is.
When you know your code is destined to fail, you want it to fail faster. Debugging is hard enough as it is, without your stupid code forcing you to wait an hour just to see your log file, so you might gain an idea of what you need to go fix. If I could fail faster, I could fix my problem earlier, get more work done, and ship my improvements sooner.
But how does that relate to wanting my business idea to fail faster? Well, imagine that a given business idea is in fact destined to fail. When would you rather find out? (a) In a week, before you invest millions of dollars and thousands of hours investing into the idea? Or (b) In a year, after you’ve invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours?
I’ll take option (a) a million times out of a million. It’s like asking if I’d like a crystal ball. Um, yes.
The operative principle here is “destined to fail.” When I’m fixing a reported bug, I know that once I create reproducible test case for that bug, my software will fail. It is destined to fail on that test case. So, of course, I want for my process of creating the reproducible test case, my software build process, and my program execution itself to all happen as fast as possible. Even better, I wish I had come up with the reproducible test case a year or two ago, so I wouldn’t be under so much pressure now. Because seeing the failure earlier—failing fast—will help me improve my product earlier.
But back to that business idea... Why would you want a business idea to fail fast? Why would you want it to fail at all? Well, of course, you don’t want it to fail, but it doesn’t matter what you want. What if it is destined to fail? It’s really important for you to know that. So how can you know?
Here’s a little trick I can teach you. Your business idea is destined to fail. It is. No matter how awesome your idea is, if you implement your current vision of some non-trivial business idea that will take you, say, a month or more to implement, not refining or evolving your original idea at all, your idea will fail. It will. Seriously. If your brain won’t permit you to conceive of this as a possibility, then your brain is actually increasing the probability that your idea will fail.
You need to figure out what will make your idea fail. If you can’t find it, then find smart people who can. Then, don’t fear it. Don’t try to pretend that it’s not there. Don’t work for a year on the easy parts of your idea, delaying the inevitable hard stuff, hoping and praying that the hard stuff will work its way out. Attack that hard stuff first. That takes courage, but you need to do it.
Find your worst bottleneck, and make it your highest priority. If you cannot solve your idea’s worst problem, then get a new idea. You’ll do yourself a favor by killing a bad idea before it kills you. If you solve your worst problem, then find the next one. Iterate. Shorter iterations are better. You’re done when you’ve proven that your idea actually works. In reality. And then, because life keeps moving, you have to keep iterating.
That’s what fail fast means. It’s about shortening your feedback loop. It’s about learning the most you can about the most important things you need to know, as soon as possible.
So, when I wish you fail fast, it’s a blessing; not a curse.