Fail Fast Squirrel Butts

Fail Fast & Pre-Mortem Your Next Project

From the Freakonomics podcast to articles from Fast Company, Fail Fast has become the latest mantra for suits, skirts, and sweatshirts alike. As a new manager within a rapidly growing company, I spent the first six months investigating experiential learning as a catalyst to positive change. I was in search of a lateral method to break through the conflict-averse environment and a way to redefine the positive value within uncertainty. Failing Fast arrived in the form of medicine that sounded difficult to swallow, but with challenging taste came promising results. The following story originated as a Tech Talk (our weekly, company-wide time slot to give a presentation on a topic of interest). Today’s edition includes anecdotes from the land of freelance as well as the beginner’s guide to cooking up a delicious crock pot of fail-fast, Lean UX, MVP, and pre-mortem methodologies.

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The product design team and I attended conference after conference where Failing Fast was lionized as a state-of-the-art religion. Speculating the contents of this new-found theory, our faces grimaced as the presenters proclaimed that we should create waste when problem solving, and, lectured on the commandment, Always have a trashcan full of ideas.”

The team and I work at a software company with an incredibly positive disposition. The ecology and economy within the development of our products is deeply cared for by the Passion- and Pride-aholics inside the organization. The use of words like waste and trash honestly offended us. Collectively we appreciated the concept but our nomenclature sensitivity held us outside the gates of possibility.

We wrapped up a month of UX conferences and the Fail Fast theory lingered within me. How can I bring this to life in a meaningful way for our department and beyond?

I began by focusing on the phenomenon of trial and error.

The media adores stories filled with lucky statements like, “We just gave it a shot and it worked!” How often do we hear about the exhaustive iterations it may have taken to get there? Contrarily, we watch theatrical tales about the epic failure of this business attempt or that, usually accompanied by dramatic soundscapes and thrilling, superfluous visuals. Due to this dichotomy, the value of trial and error has been reduced to finger-crossing or finger-pointing rather than a simple set of metrics to validate assumptions. If we measure the success and failures of each iteration, we will create better solutions. Lean Startup is an unwavering proponent of this (as well as Lean UX), where the scientific method is applied at every turn with a hypothesis (trial) and an experiment (error).

The word error sheds light on the dark corner of failure. Whether you grew up under the banner of “Failure Is Not An Option” or “Everyone Gets A Trophy”, we need to reevaluate our use of these words. We can all increase success by embracing more Fail Whales.

fail fast fail whale

“Real failure doesn’t come from making mistakes; it comes from avoiding errors at all possible costs, from fear to take risks and from the inability to grow. Being mistake free is not success. Still, we avoid challenges and hide mistakes. We don’t like to talk about them and bring attention to them. It’s safer to look the other way or sweep them under the rug.”

fail fast to find success

The above quote is drawn from a wonderful article by Larry Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey, the authors of The Wisdom of Failure. The subtitle of this article persisted through my synapses: If learning happens through trial and error, then you need to try, and more importantly, you need to err. The bottom line is that success is squiggly — failure helps redefine the path along the way, constantly course-correcting until your end result is a masterpiece.

We need to focus on the upside risk
rather than the downside risk of not trying at all.

If you recall, the team and I were taken aback by the act of throwing out ideas. If we produce solution waste, we won’t actually take the trash out. What I mean to say is, our ideas are not rotting banana peels, they resemble sketch book pages (and often times are), which is why I propose we refer to this trash philosophy as our Bookcase of Ideas. How many times have you actively thought of and applied previous experience to shape an approach? Reaching for experiential knowledge is akin to pulling a cherished book off the shelf; we will recall our previous learnings and apply them for years to come as we progress in creative thinking and tactical problem solving.

Embracing failure early and often
will help you create a bookcase of ideas rather than
an overflowing trash can of crappy ideas.

fail fast and everything will be ok
From one of my favorite design agencies, MINE, who created the ultimate tool for social responsibility: Everything Is Ok caution tape. I am still waiting for the right opportunity to unleash the tape from its limited edition can.

But enough dawdling with the courteous labels of early and often — failing fast means learning fast. QUIT IT. Kill it. If your gut is telling you to stop that project in its tracks, DO IT! Man up and test the next best thing. It takes serious gusto to actually press the Delete button on a project’s trajectory, but EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY. Remember, we’re making a bookcase of experience that will fuel your next solution.

Speaking of your next idea, in software, we revere the Minimum Viable Product or MVP. This concept sails far beyond ones and zeroes — try an MVP for business modeling, baking, or testing an alternate route to work. If you find yourself circumspect however, allow me to explain and remove any thoughts of your favorite sports figure.

Let’s say you’re making a new to-do list app. From a design perspective, the Minimum Viable Product might include a background color, buttons with explanatory text, an input field and a submit button to allow you to create a to-do list. The basic function is implemented, but perhaps the polished interface and the extra customer experiences have yet to be developed.

By producing just enough to test the functionality with real people and therefore validate your assumptions, you will have created an all star Minimum Viable Product. The opposite of an MVP is an over-designed first phase that has far too many hours invested, and, usually attempts to solve too many problems for the user. Without ever testing your assumptions along the way, the user may be under- (or perhaps over)whelmed by the experience of a pretty thing that is overworked and under-appreciated.

Please note:
They are efficient, well-made decisions, which are
‘Great for Now’ rather than ‘Good Enough.’

The value of an MVP is often confused with the effort of C- student. This is not the case! If you were to meet them at a party, your first impression would reveal a striking contrast between Mr. MVP and Mr. Half-Ass.

Upon introducing yourself to Mr. Half-Ass, he shows a fake smile, and tells a verbose and perhaps tall tale about his ne’er-do-well accomplishments.

Upon introducing yourself to Mr. MVP, he reaches out, firmly shakes your hand, and says “Very nice to meet you, I am Mr. MVP. How do you know the host?”

Mr. MVP is approachable, sincere, and with an uncomplicated gesture he has invited you to have a conversation. At the core of a minimum viable product is the beginning to a conversation about the (project’s) future.

So, let’s go back to the topic of failing fast
and add in some MVP spice.

Try making an MVP of your next project — regardless of your industry. If it fails, FANTASTIC. How much did you learn? How much better is your next iteration going to be? And how much faster can you step out to grab an afternoon seltzer for a bit of a brain break?

This seltzer moment is an important facet of what defines us as humans and points to the other hidden advantage of an MVP: efficiency. In this case, I define efficiency as one’s ability to complete a task while operating at full mental, physical, and emotional capacity. To know thyself is to be true to oneself, and if you can break a project down to its most meaningful parts, the finish line will arrive at surprising speed. Having the time to step away, take a walk, and grab a seltzer therefore transforms the MVP into a personal efficiency gateway.

fail fast to find more room in your talent vessel
Avoid turning your talent up to 11 repeatedly; an MVP can help maintain a steady level without overheating, exhaustion, and burnout.

We must remember that we all have knobs dedicated to our volume in talent. As humans, we can only turn them up so much because burnout and the law of diminishing returns is nearly guaranteed. We too deserve a little preventative maintenance, and should reward ourselves for trying and erring. There is a point where you can stop, step away, and think clearly about what to try next. It may not be in the next five minutes, it may not be until tomorrow morning because perhaps that is when your brain is at its best. Respect this knowledge, and communicate it to your colleagues to ensure that efficiency remains a primary stakeholder in everything you do, personally or professionally.

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Getting back to software-speak (specifically Agile methodologies), in a land of emerging requirements, how can we actually be proactive? We are told to do just enough planning and then leave time for things that come up along the way. In reality, we may not have the time or resources to churn out bookcases of ideas, but we can perform a pre-mortem and gain better foresight into our projects.

“Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, found that prospective hindsight  — imagining that an event has already occurred — increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. We have used prospective hindsight to devise a method called a pre-mortem, which helps project teams identify risks at the outset.” -Gary Klein

Most software teams today conduct a retrospective or post-mortem at the end of a project. Agile and proactive planning feel a bit at odds, and thus these post-mortems can be harsh, too late, or just plain obvious as to why and where things went wrong (and also where things went well). Let’s change our practice and use prospective hindsight. Try the following steps to facilitate a pre-mortem in your next project:

  1. Instead of asking what could go wrong with that feature, imagine it has completely flopped and has now become an epic fail.
  2. Collaboratively, within your team, generate the plausible reasons for this feature’s failure in 3 minutes, using Sharpies and sticky notes. (Here’s where we combine pre-mortem and Lean methodologies together. Time limitations, sticky notes, and Sharpies are vital Lean UX ingredients.) The team writes down as many of these failures as possible, practicing divergent, top-of-mind thinking. When the timebox has been completed, each team member reads their reasons aloud as they post them on a white board. The remaining members follow, stacking any duplicate stickies on top, which may reveal a trend, strength in signal, or general alignment.
  3. After conducting the sticky note pre-mortem exercise, the team may choose to use all of the failures or engage in convergent thinking and narrow them down further into themes. This will in turn define ways to strengthen the feature, user story, and/or release plan.

Please note: Substitute any of the above software terminology for task, project, or to-do and team for yourself. This framework is useful at every level, with stickies, a notepad, or just a quick snapshot of brain space.

Sometimes, however, we are suspicious of processes which sound easier than they are, or, those that come across as labyrinth-like are promptly put on the shelf. Below are a few every day examples to show how the pre-mortem framework can help achieve the goals of your next project, however small or large.


Project Example 1: Memorable Presentation Slides
Your alma matter has asked you to come back and give a presentation to a group of 50 students in one of their new conference rooms.

Pre-Mortem Analysis (Identified Failures):
– Attendees are bored by too much text and not enough visuals.
– Attendees can’t hear you due to the lack of a microphone.
– Attendees can’t see the bottom half of the projection screen.

fail fast with this fine conference room

Active Refinement:
Design the slide deck above the bottom third of the screen. Chances are that the room will not have sloped seating. Attendees appreciate your choice of more visuals over gobs of text, and listen to your warmed-up and ready-for-projecting voice.

Output: Attendees enjoy the presentation and share their favorite moments with friends.


Project Example 2: Resume Updates with Pizazz
Updating your resume with song titles laced throughout to show personality. “Under My Thumb” is used among many other lyrical gems.

Pre-Mortem Analysis (Identified Failures):
– The reader does not catch on to the subtle creativity throughout and finds your ‘under my thumb management of others’ to be dictator-like, causing your resume to be discarded.
– The reader finds you unprofessional.
– The reader can’t stand classic rock.

Active Refinement: Keep the copy of your resume professional and clear, but craft a music-influenced cover letter that engages the reader and gets them excited about how your personality translates to you, the awesome candidate.

Output: You receive a request for an interview.


Project 3: Disconnected Self Promotion
Increase customer acquisition by creating a self-promotion game for potential new clients who are also consumers of the latest iPhone 6.

Pre-Mortem Analysis (Identified Failures):
– The look and feel of the game is sub-par when compared to Angry Birds and Monument Valley.
– Games are not a focus of the customer target market.
– The lack of utility causes customer dropoff rates and thus reveals a disconnect between what the design firm can provide and what the customer really needs.

Active Refinement: Take a Lean approach and make a hypothesis about what the potential customers want. Test this hypothesis with an experiment. This may be through a conversational survey of pre-existing customers, strangers on the street, or at the next Chamber of Commerce meeting. The objective here is validated learning. The survey results will shape the strategy of the app, which will hopefully inspire people to reach out for your services, in addition to positively changing their daily lives.

Output: Your service gains recognition, increases revenue, and adds value around the world through a validated, customer-focused app.

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In closing, start your next to-do with an MVP. Add your iterations, failures, and successes to that Bookcase of Ideas. And, whether you have tons of time on your hands, you are filled with blinding ambition, or you need to run to the next meeting, use these three easy steps to pre-mortem your next project. Practice makes progress!

  1. Imagine that your project has completely failed.
  2. Generate the plausible reasons for this project’s failure.
  3. Review these fail-points and discover ways to strengthen the project.

Embrace the face of failure first – like seeing animals in the clouds, the shape of success resides in the smoke rising up from the embers.

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