Lean Startup Failure

At this year’s Lean Startup Conference I had the opportunity to speak with numerous other attendees who apply the lean startup approach in an enterprise setting. These agents of change face a daunting challenge in changing the culture of large organizations.

The conversations about enterprise transformation covered a broad range of topics, including executive buy-in, accounting for the value of experiments, formation of teams, portfolio management, and more. But one topic stood out as the most common problem. The “fail fast” language.

Cool kids in the lean startup community love to talk about “failing fast”. The first time a non-practitioner hears this it always raises eyebrows. “Why would we want to fail? We want to succeed.” They are not cool with it.

Of course all the cool kids understand that when they say “fail” they mean “invalidate a hypothesis” or “produce a negative experimental result”. They treat “fail” as an experimental outcome rather than a business outcome, and so failing fast means learning fast.

Alas this lingo itself fails in the enterprise setting. It doesn’t resonate usefully with managers and executives. As an element supporting the creation of an experimental culture, it doesn’t work. I’ve seen this first hand at many enterprise clients. Those I spoke to said the same.

Why do members of the lean startup community not take their own advice and fail fast with this language? Why do they persist in using lingo that clearly does not work in the enterprise setting?

Maybe lean startup has yet to outgrow its roots in the world of start-ups. Entrepreneurs are much more eager to adopt new concepts and lingo than almost anyone in an enterprise setting. An unfamiliar concept like “fail fast” doesn’t threaten longstanding cultural norms in a start-up. Although enterprise application of lean startup is growing fast, it is not the dominant application in the community as a whole.

Perhaps dogma in the lean startup community has grown strong enough to make people reluctant to depart from the “fail fast” lingo. This language is well established. Who wants to be first to break with standard doctrine and separate from the cool kids?

I believe those of us introducing lean startup in the enterprise setting simply have not yet taken our own medicine and called the “fail fast” language a failed experiment and created a better terminology. Both “experiment fast” and “learn fast” play better among my enterprise clients.

The “fail fast” lingo directly inhibits the cultivation of managerial and executive buy-in. You can point people to lots of great online resources, but if they say “fail fast” you have much explaining to do. It’s no small matter.

Let’s admit it. We failed to fail fast with “fail fast”. It’s time for a new experiment.

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