When innovation professionals talk about ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ they’re really just trying to get your attention. Or, at least, I hope they are. I’ve heard the phrase used in the context of companies reaching failure quickly, before they burn too much money. I’ve also heard it used to rush products to market before they’re done, to get a quicker response–sometimes creating unnecessary failure.
Most often, in the field of product and service innovation, I hear it used to describe an iterative process of development.
If ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ sounds counterintuitive that’s because it’s not really about failing. It’s more about having a culture that gives permission to experiment–the ability to try ideas before really committing.
Too often big companies will do a large amount of up front analysis and secondary research. They look at market sizes and trends, using that data to make decisions about what to offer next.
That data is useful. It helps companies figure out where to aim their resources. The numbers are used as a threshold or a trigger to decide whether or not to enter a market. And that makes sense. After all, if there’s money and activity in a market, it could be a good (or even great) place to be.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the likelihood of your offering making an impact on that marketplace.
Markets aren’t abstract pie charts, so we shouldn’t treat them that way. They’re made of people. If we’ve answered the question ‘Is there money in that market?’ that’s great. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell us if any of the people in that market are willing to part with that money to purchase your offering.
You have no idea if they will really care. Or maybe you have some idea, but you don’t have proof. Using experimentation, in the form of prototyping will help.
It can be scary to show prototypes to a potential customer. We have a certain natural inclination to say, “We can’t show them this, it’s not done yet.” That’s exactly the time you should be sharing it! This really simple graph is an illustration of this.
The closer you are to rolling out a new product or service (x axis), the more expensive it gets to make a change (y axis). Mistakes cost more the closer you are to launch.
So how do you fix it? How do you get at the real value of ‘failing fast?’
If you conduct experiments, having small-scale successes and failures, well before you get far along the curve, you can make those changes while they’re still relatively cheap. Hopefully, you can do this before you apply expensive resources like engineers, developers and others to solve a problem or develop a feature that may or may not be relevant to your success.
This is not failure. You are checking what you think you know. Some ideas will be worth keeping. Some will not. Constantly check and refine along the way to avoid surprises.
This is not some high-risk, daring strategy. It’s actually a very conservative approach to bringing something new to market.
Create prototypes from the very beginning. They don’t have to be pretty. It’s okay if they require a certain amount of imagination on the part of the evaluator. This can actually be an advantage. If they don’t think it’s finished yet, they’re more likely to make useful suggestions.
So, get out your cardboard and glue, create computer screens of post-its and hand sketches, make things that look like they belong in a science fair: they can all help you better answer the question “Does my customer care?”
Product and process innovation requires heavy doses of experimentation—especially during the early stages of development. How can you avoid the ‘fail fast, fail cheap’ deception at your organization?
- Before you commit expensive resources to a project, don’t be afraid to test what you think you know. You’re actually taking a bigger risk by relying solely on data or not asking the customer what they think until the very end.
- Start with really rough prototypes as a learning tool. Holding a rough model of something can spark ideas or help a customer spot a fatal flaw. Do it before you start to spend a lot of money developing a product or feature that the customer doesn’t want.
- Keep the user in the loop. Don’t just check your ideas at the beginning and right before release. There are a lot of great ideas to be found and adjustments to be made throughout the entire development process. Not only will you be moving toward completion, you’ll also be constantly refining your offering to better align with what your customer ultimately wants.
Update: Check out Sir James Dyson’s post In Praise of Failure over at Wired.