This perpetual talk about failing fast is kind of driving me crazy. Of course we can and should learn from our missteps, but all the “failing fast” rhetoric misses a crucial point.
We shouldn’t be failing, we should be experimenting. Maybe I’m being a stickler for nomenclature, but to me there is a big difference between failing and experimenting. Failure is when you’re sure you know the answer, invest in building something, launch it, and then realize you were wrong. Experimentation is when you think you know the answer, go test it before you invest heavily in it, and then iterate based on what you learned.
We fail when we over invest our resources in something that’s unknown without testing basic assumptions. We fail when we don’t turn a thoughtful eye towards learning until we’ve run into a brick wall. Preaching failing fast sets us up for a much longer and more expensive learning cycle than is necessary.
Instead of creating a culture where failure is permitted, we should be creating a culture where experimentation is expected. When starting to invest in a new idea, we should ask ourselves, “what assumptions we are making that are necessary for that idea to succeed?” We should ask ourselves, “why is a certain variable in our idea (e.g. mode of input, distribution channel) what it is?” and consider exploring alternatives. We should develop experiments (at the d.school we call them prototypes) to explore these critical unknowns, and feed our learning back into a new iteration of the idea. Working with this mindset, one invests more and more in each experiment, and they morph into the implementation of a well-tested idea.
When we experiment instead of fail, and start talking about our process and lessons, our learning curve really starts to hockey stick.