In Order to “Fail” You Must “Do”

Noah Buscher

English is a tricky language and it can be used to trick people.  My wife constantly complains when I do what she asked, not what she wanted.  Imprecise language can be the cause of immense confusion and strife whereas being too precise can get your spouse annoyed with you.

And sometimes certain words and phrases are used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be.  (There is a world of difference between “Cyber Security” and “Information Security”.)

But worst of all is using words and phrases to subtly influence people when you know darn well that those things are not applicable or make no sense in the current context.

Buzzwords, those words and phrases that initiate conversation, evoke emotional responses or lend credence to an idea, are used and abused more often than any other words in the English language.  Buzzwords have a short lifetime for their usefulness so they are quickly used and abused.

Remember when HD televisions first came out?  Everything was HD.  You could get HD sunglasses.  HD coatings on glasses.  An HD finish on your counter.  (Yeah, I could never figure that one out.)  If you added HD to your product definition you were cool, hip, dope, in touch with reality.


IT is particularly bad at this as technology changes so fast people are trying to attach the latest and greatest to their product/solution because they only have a short period of time to be effective.  One of the more current phrases is “fail fast”.

When you “fail fast” you implement something, detect the failure quickly, report it back to the team and then correct the failure.  It is a very tight loop with, preferably, the loop being days or even hours.  (Self-correcting systems self-heal but that’s a completely different story.)  The key to failing fast is that you have to do something in order to fail.  If you don’t do something, how can you fail?

1. be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal.
“he failed in his attempt to secure election”

2. neglect to do something.
“the firm failed to give adequate risk warnings”

People have been using “fail fast” to denote filling out a form to get a score.  If the score is low you stop and if the score is high you go on.  This is not failing fast.  You didn’t “do” anything.  (No, I do not consider filling out a ten question form the equivalent of “doing” something.)  If you want to fail fast you do a prototype, you do a proof of concept, you do a wireframe, you put a whole bunch of post-it notes on the wall to see if something works.  You.  Do. Something.

Filling out a form and having it tell you “yes” or “no” is not doing something, it is abdicating decision making to a pre-set formula.  human being are nuanced.  Their requirements reflect themselves and the people around them.  The need for something cannot always be reduced to a simple formula.  If you had put the idea of Amazon into such a formula it would have told you to run for the hills and not to do it.  But someone did and it turned out to be a success.

Not all companies that defy a model succeeded.  A CEO of Anderson Consulting (now Accenture), George Shaheen, left as CEO to join Webvan.  And it flopped.  Horribly.

The point is that a form cannot tell you whether or not something should be done.  It requires people.  It requires a nuanced understanding of the people involved, the requirements and the desires of the customers / clients / citizens to be affected.  It requires a human.

Relegating decision making to an online form, a SharePoint site that totals up numbers to give you a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, is not failing fast.  It is merely failing.

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