The Art of Failing Early

Nobody wants to fail, obviously. We’re taught by teachers, parents, and greeting cards alike to never give up and follow our dreams.

But failing—and failing early, in particular—is an important part of success. It’s counter-intuitive, so let’s examine the way it works.

Say we’re doing a project. Like any challenging project, it’s got some risk and some unknowns. We don’t know how long it will take, but we get started. Maybe we guess about two years. So, we get started; we’re working, and we find some of those challenges. We grind through them, and find almost adequate solutions, and keep trucking. Our schedule swells, our budget soars. We chew through all the time money only to realize the problems we were facing were signals that we had a bad design, and it turns out that we’ve got nothing. We might have learned something along the way, but we’ve used all that time and money.

What if we could fail early? If there was a way to know that we were on the wrong track, we could quit early and save all that time and money.

Failing early is an interesting goal. The idea is to assert that the first milestone of a project must meet critical goals for cutting risk and closing open issues. If solutions to those critical problems are found, or if they’re at least becoming more sold, then work can proceed. If not, then it’s time to re-evaluate what the project will do; or, at least, when it will finish. Projects that ignore these signals are going to waste lots of time.

Admitting defeat isn’t failure. It’s actually very smart to recognize an intractable situation and backtrack to a better path. The sooner a team backs up and finds a path to success, the more time they have to realize that success.






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