Math Formula

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fail fast, and fail often

A few weeks ago, I wrote about mantras in general, but with particular regard to lifestyle and attitude towards life.
Today, I want to talk about my favorite mantra at work.

Similar to the stupid ones I mentioned in that other post, obviously there are several suggestions you hear over and over again. What comes to my mind as a perfect example is 'I will work harder', as followed by Boxer in George Orwell's Animal Farm. Another one, as already mentioned earlier: Those who can go out can also work ("wer fortgehen kann kann auch arbeiten").

Anyways, let's not waste time on things that are useless, but rather focus on the ones I do consider helpful.

My favorite two mantras at work are:
  • Make better trade-offs
  • Fail fast, and fail often
I currently work in a software development company, but I think those two can be applied quite universally.

So, what does "make better trade-offs" mean? For me, that short sentence highlights the fact that quite often possibilities and decisions are not only black and white, but there is something in between. 

Taking an example from software development, quite often you face the question of implementing a particular feature the 'quick-and-dirty' way (which might do the job in short-term, but be rather poor to improve and maintain in middle- and long-term) or the according-to-the-book, super-perfect, elegant and time-consuming way. I feel that business people tend to gravitate towards the first statement, whereas any self-respecting geek would favor the second one.

Now, I don't want to make the case for the one or the other extreme. From my point of view, both of them are wrong, as they ignore that whatever they do is and will always be a trade-off. Thus, the only thing you as a decision maker can do is accepting the fact that you face a trade-off, and make better trade-offs.

For all kinds of decisions and actions, I think there is a strong aversion against failure prevails in our Western European culture. (Some people claim that this aversion is even stronger in former-communist Eastern European countries. Cannot yet judge about them, and even more so about people from more distant countries ... probably have to figure it out myself one day.) I think that this attitude is fundamentally wrong.
If you always keep doing the same things you are already confident and good at, you will keep doing them forever.
Instead, you should seek to fail, value to fail, and learn from your mistakes.

And I think not only should you seek to expose yourself to situations where you can fail, but you should seek to fail fast. And often. The faster you fail, the easier you can incorporate the findings and the feedback from that failure to you future actions! The same is true for the frequency of your failures. Faster failures, more frequent failures, clearly result in a much higher number of possibilities for improvement.

Admittedly, that thought is not new at all. In my understanding, it is one of the key advantages of Agile software development. As Juergen Appelo puts it in Management 3.0, "Software is produced in short time frames, often in time  boxes or 'sprints', and delivered in many incremental releases, where each release is a potentially shippable product." Shortening feedback loops is also something heavily encouraged by successful entrepreneurs, as young entrepreneur Carl Taylor reveals in an interview.

Again, I think these two principles can be applied in pretty much every industry. I'm sure you can find ways to apply them at your work, right away and right now. And I wonder ... what is your mantra at work?

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