The head of human resources said to me, “We need to become more agile. We’re not lean enough. I want to see our culture shift to ‘fail fast, fail often.’”
It was a great moment. For me at least.
In my head, I was playing buzzword bingo, and with the use of “Agile,” “Lean,” and “fail fast, fail often,” I had just scored a perfect game. But it’s a game I was not looking to win.
When leaders do not fully understand or appreciate a term, the result can have the opposite effect of what they wish to achieve.
Worse, when we muddy the waters with language such as “fail fast, fail often” with what we intend, it can cause irreparable damage, particularly to organizational culture.
The first issue to tackle: stop lumping together “Lean” and “Agile.” They are drastically different concepts.
Lean is a term normally associated with the removal of waste and inefficient processes to improve an outcome. In other words, it’s a methodology in which to streamline. A relatively well-known historical example of “Lean” is the Toyota Way, a pioneering manufacturing process in the production of cars. The Toyota Way involves—among other components—a continuous improvement mindset (known as kaizen) alongside a “respect for people” behavioral attribute.
It is a focus on the system as a whole, particularly people and their respective roles and responsibilities. To gain efficiencies in the organization, good “Lean” companies will involve all employees—particularly front-line team members—to assuage problems, reduce costs, and so on. In essence, “Lean” is a very healthy way to operate an entire organization if senior leaders wish to truly involve everyone.
But Lean is not Agile. The terms are not synonymous.
Agile got its roots in the software development space, specifically via the introduction of Manifesto for Software Development in 2001. Put together by a cadre of founders, there are 12 principles to Agile Development including such gems as “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software,” and “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”
Agile also includes frequent checkpoints with the customer—where the customer is an integral part of the development team—which allows there to be frequent and timely changes to the software service or product that is in development. Often there are self-organizing teams in a true Agile environment, too.
When I was a kid, I watched cartoons, and I watched the Muppets. But cartoons are not Muppets—and vice-versa—yet I would never suggest they were the same thing. Sure, they entertained me, but Jim Henson would be rolling in his grave if you confused the Muppets (or Sesame Street) for a cartoon.
The same can be said for “Lean” and “Agile.” While they may both serve an organization well, they are not the same thing.
Which brings us to the real point of this column.
When senior executives of an organization do not properly arm themselves with adequate depth of understanding to terms such as “Lean” and “Agile,” they end up not only lumping them together, they urge the organization to then “fail fast, fail often.” If we’re “Lean” we must “fail fast, fail often.” Or, if we’re “Agile” we must “fail fast, fail often.”
Either way, it then defeats their real intention. The unintended consequence is employee chaos.
“Fail fast, fail often,” is not only being used incorrectly as a cousin to “Lean” and “Agile,” it is creating a culture of people aiming for the short-term, living in a world of frenetic bedlam. Instead of calmly and intelligently iterating, employees race to complete something (failing) while racing to the next objective as quickly as possible. (failing, but quicker.)
Originating from Silicon Valley and its ocean of start-ups, the real aim of “fail fast, fail often,” is not to fail, but to be iterative. To succeed, we must be open to failure—sure—but the intention is to ensure we are learning from our mistakes as we tweak, reset, and then redo if necessary.
When executives institute a “fail fast, fail often” mantra, they must ensure it is not at the expense of creative or critical thinking. Time is our most precious resource. When “fail fast, fail often” is invoked, it cannot become a culture where speed trumps the time we need to spend on creativity. Furthermore, we must not become preoccupied to “fail” by preceding the requirement to make judicious, thoughtful decisions.
“Fail fast, fail often,” as a mantra has seen some success. SpaceX comes to mind. But “fail fast, fail often” has been around for years. Thomas Edison, by example, “failed” 9,000 times before he was successful with his light bulb invention.
But Edison (and Elon Musk et al. at SpaceX) was not stressed by time. He did not suffer fools from the confusion of “Lean” and “Agile.”
Both of these individuals were iterative. Edison and Musk balanced their creative and critical thinking with the need to apply their learnings iteratively.
And this is precisely how senior leaders need to start thinking.
Stop the madness of buzzword bingo. You are becoming dangerous.
Animal from the Muppets will be unleashed on you at some point in the near term.