broken plate

Long before it had billions of users, Facebook inspired a generation of developers with its now-famous former slogan, “Move fast and break things.” The idea was both simple and disruptive: Getting a release into the hands of users quickly is more important than ensuring it’s perfect. It was a different way of thinking and, seemingly, the dawn of a new way of doing business.

But although it became a mantra for a generation of tech startups, the concept of “failing fast” was never widely adopted outside of Silicon Valley. Yes, most enterprises now leverage the agile development methodologies that emerged from the fail-fast era. But the reality is most mainstream business leaders simply never grew comfortable with the idea of iterating on the fly and potentially, and sometimes even willingly, exposing customers to product imperfections.

Though years have passed and Facebook itself abandoned the slogan long ago (explaining when it did that you can’t actually move faster if you constantly have to slow down to fix bugs), there’s actually never been a better time to embrace the fail-fast mantra. Except, this time instead of “fail fast and break things” the emphasis should be “fail fast and improve things.”

Why Now?

In retrospect, it’s not surprising most large enterprises never embraced the notion of failing fast. Successful established brands tend to be risk-averse. The last thing they want to do is introduce disruption and, right or wrong, most have historically viewed failing fast as a disruptive concept.

Why should now be any different?

Well, take a look around. We are awash in disruption and risk. Given the scope of change we’ve all had to embrace in the wake of COVID-19, now is a great time to take risks you’ve been unwilling to take in the past. Moreover, with modern advances in technology, inviting customers to join you in a continuous process of iteration and improvement is not nearly as risky as you might think and there are plenty of steps you can take to mitigate whatever risks do exist.

The Benefits of Failing Fast

If there’s one thing we should be all focused on right now it’s finding ways to get closer to customers. Taking a more iterative approach to developing and improving your products is a great way to do that. The best thing about the fail-fast concept is that it directly involves your customers in the process of building great products. Rather than waiting until you have a perfect release candidate (spoiler: you never will), the fail-fast approach gets your customers involved early, gives you immediate insight into their likes and dislikes and lets their feedback and usage patterns guide you through an informed process of data-driven iteration. 

Faster and more frequent iteration is a major benefit of the fail-fast approach. No software ever emerges from the delivery pipeline in perfect shape. The more willing you are to accept failure as part of the process, the sooner you can begin to iterate and improve and the better your product will become. Product teams can and should iterate and improve continuously and indefinitely. That’s ultimately how innovation occurs. Innovation is not about having game-changing, pre-release epiphanies. It’s about continuously improving. In other words, done right, failing fast is a gateway to innovation.

Risks to Consider...

Though now is indeed a great time to fail fast that doesn’t mean there aren’t still risks. It just means our appetite for such risk should be stronger than in normal times. The biggest risk, the one that may have scared you off in the first place, is creating a poor experience for your customers. You don’t need me to tell you how damaging poor customer experiences are to your brand.

But remember this is not about breaking things. If breaking things was ultimately untenable for Facebook, chances are the same is true for your business. There’s a big difference between failing fast and improving quickly and lazily releasing poor-quality software. Putting processes in place that keep you on the right side of that line is essential.

Failing fast can also potentially lead to burnout within your team. Every time something needs to be changed, fixed or improved, someone has to do that work. So it’s critical that you provide your team with the right tools and resources.

...and How to Mitigate Them

Risk mitigation is first and foremost about properly setting expectations with customers. Make sure your customers know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how much you value their input and collaboration. Create reliable, repeatable feedback loops that enable your customers to quickly and easily deliver feedback. Then make it accessible to everyone in the company including engineering, product, sales, marketing and anyone else involved in shaping the customer experience. And, of course, act swiftly on that feedback or be prepared to explain why you’re not.

As mentioned earlier, risk mitigation also means ensuring your development team has the right tools and methodologies to move at the required speed. Arm them with the modern CI/CD, test automation and performance monitoring tools they need to drive continuous testing and improvement.

It also means ensuring they have the tools they need to measure. There’s no better way to mitigate risk than to measure, measure and measure some more. Anyone can fail fast. To fail fast and improve requires a willingness to get dirty with data and fully understand those early customer usage patterns.

Rewards > Risks

Nothing worth doing is without risk. Failing fast is no different. But the rewards are great, the testing and mitigation tools are readily available and most importantly the time may never be more right.