Stop failing fast, start experimenting fast

Adrienne Tan

Failing fast has become a catch-cry in Product Management, but is it serving us well?

In August 2017, Brainmates hosted a round table discussion with some experienced and respected Product Leaders.

This post unpacks their thinking on failing fast and why it’s time to start talking and behaving in a new way. Let’s start experimenting fast.

The panelists were:
Richard Linstead, Lead Entrepreneur in Residence, Westpac Group
Paz Saavedra, Group Product Manager, Scentre Group
Mark Robinson, Director of Product at Yahoo7
Agnes Schliebitz-Ponthus, Director Product Management, Fluent Retail
Jason Prowd, Product, Morningstar
Nada Tielu, Senior Product Manager, The Iconic
Adrienne Tan, Founder and Principal Consultant, Brainmates
Nick Coster, Founder and Head of Training, Brainmates
Sarah Mitchell, Product Manager Leading the Product, Brainmates
The moderator was: Jen Marshall, CEO, Brainmates

Afraid to fail

Despite many years of talking about failure, it remains unacceptable in the majority of organisations.

That makes sense, looking at the broader forces in society.

“That is a really hard behaviour to change. As children we’re taught not to fail,” said Adrienne Tan.

“We should not be scared to fail, and as a Product Manager it’s difficult, especially when you work with an established brand, there is still an unwillingness around the business to try new things and see you fail,” according to Nada Tielu.

There are no prizes for failure, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Those who manage to avoid failure are generally able to secure promotion and rewards.

“It is a really successful career strategy… There’s lots of people that have built successful careers in delaying that [failure],” according to Jason Prowd.

Product Management Leaders

Experimenting fast

Maybe fail fast was always doomed, because it doesn’t accurately describe what the practice is about.

Nick Coster suggests: “I’d say stop failing and start experimenting. Because they see the startup language of failure sounds really cool, yeah man we’ll fall on our face, we’ll get back up again, it’ll be awesome.”

“Until you fall on your face and it really, really hurts and you never want to do that again. I think if everything is built more like an experiment, like okay, I fell on my face, what did I learn? Do you actually take the time to reflect on that injury or that experience, then it turns failure into a positive rather than just the negativity of it,” Nick added.

“I think organisationally it is an easier sell to say that we are running an experiment and regardless of whether we get it right or wrong we’ve learned something valuable, rather than saying, give me $10,000 bucks, I might fail, sorry, can I have another $10,000 bucks,” said Nick.

Challenges remain

While experimenting fast is more attractive than failing fast, challenges to adoption remain in enterprise-size organisations.

“Experiment is not a word that runs in corporate world. You can’t say I’m running an experiment,” explained Richard Linstead.

It’s a significant mindset shift to get the executive to commit resources against experiments, as opposed to deliverables.

“You can’t do experiments if you don’t have any people,” said Mark Robinson.

“We do spend a lot of time trying to talk up the success of experiments and when things have panned out, but we also call out when we have an experiment that proved. We don’t talk in failure terms, we validate this is not the path we need to go through. You have to change the semantics,” Mark said.

“Particularly for an executive team, because I need to provide my boss the right equipment to say, we spent a month of costs within the business to prove that we shouldn’t spend another three months,” he added.

Key Takeaways

  • Experiments are for learning
  • The duration of experiments should be fast i.e. they’re relatively quick to conduct
  • The pace of experimentation should be fast i.e. you conduct them frequently
  • Don’t frame experiments in terms of success and failure, talk about validating direction or next steps

Read more content from the August 2017 round table discussion on the State of Product Management in Australia:
The Future of Product Management in Australia
Product Management Terms – misused and abused



Adrienne Tan

Adrienne Tan | Author

Adrienne is Co-Founder and CEO of Brainmates and Co-Founder of Leading the Product. She has been championing Product Management since 2000, earning international recognition for raising the profile of the Product Management profession. In this capacity she regularly consults to the Asia-Pacific's top businesses and speaks at business and Product events around the world.

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