Eric Karjaluoto

A Better Way to Fail Fast

Certain notions are so insightful that they spread quickly. As this happens, many such ideas are sapped of their meaning, and turned into hollow platitudes. “Fail fast,” is such a phrase, and it’s commonly repeated among those who work in, or with, startups.

The logic behind this phrase is sound. It proposes that making the right choices on undefined projects can be difficult; therefore, you shouldn’t dwell on setbacks. Instead, you should learn what you can from your missteps and move on—quickly.

This idea is powerful because it encourages innovators to look forward. Or, as Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.”

Without such a mindset, one can get hung-up on his/her stumbles. Worse yet, the resultant fear can slow the innovator from taking new approaches and entertaining somewhat divergent possibilities.

However, this phrase’s meaning has become perverted, affording many an excuse to give up and switch to something completely different. They use the words “fail fast” to avoid the hard tactical questions that need to be addressed, in order to advance. Instead of biting down and dealing with the obstacles at hand, they quit, and move on to something completely different—because they’re “failing fast.”

Let’s bring this discussion back to Edison. What if he had given up on the lightbulb and moved on to another challenge, every time he hit an obstacle? Sure, he could claim that he’d “failed fast,” but he also wouldn’t have achieved his breakthrough.

I’m all for failing fast. For this device to work properly, though, I choose to fail fast on smaller points, while keeping my long-term goal consistent. As such, I propose a simple rework of the phrase. Let’s stop saying, “fail fast,” and instead try: “fail on the small stuff fast.”

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