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Fail Fast, Fail Small to Avoid Failing Big and Failing Slowly

Karl Smith


business team

Karl Smith explores how to avoid slow and costly failure within enterprise.

You would think that by this late stage in the life of Agile and Agility, the concepts would be well embedded in organisational transformation, people assessments and processes. From my experience I’ve never seen Agile actually fail; I’ve seen people pervert its meaning and make up their own versions – then blame a framework for personal incompetence. But I’ve not seen Agile fail, and I’ve not seen DevOps fail either.

In European culture, there is something at the heart of business that hates the idea of being associated with failure. Which isn’t even logical, at least by philosophical standards. Socrates proposed a logical form that is constantly tested by debate, hence it requires a willingness and even a desire to fail to find truth. The Socratic method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions. Concern around failure relies on deep seated fears around not being able to prove worth, and conversely the chance that any hint of failure transfers onto the person rather than the thing.

Fail fast in organisational transformation, people assessments and processes.

If you are going to really take this on you should start at the beginning, planning the programme and making the case. Instead of getting some expensive consultants who want to try something in your company (no matter how many times they say they have done it elsewhere) get one or two Agile DevOps strategists (certified Scrum practitioners) and get 60-100 of your staff from all levels into a room and do a two day hackathon. On day one, this group will hack the problem and determine any hidden problems to define the ‘Problem Statement.’ On day two they will map out all the moving parts to define the scope. Could it fail, absolutely, but could it save 12 months of six consultants on £2500 a day – absolutely.

Start at the beginning with people too, most management exists either to direct work; manage people who are not trusted, or to circumvent freakishly hard processes to get the most simple things done. If you are planning on changing the emphasis in your company from hierarchy to teams and outcomes, you must offer the incumbents a way to revalidate themselves or they will actively seek to cripple or pervert the programme to suit themselves. Quickly test the water with an alternative career path based on knowledge rather than prestige or headcount. See how many people will sign up to not having to manage people, but be appreciated for their knowledge and be paid the same? You may be surprised.

Processes in this scenario begin to take care of themselves, but it’s always good to run some ‘what if’ or ‘unhappy path’ testing too, as this creates checks and balances around change.

Fail small in organisational transformation, people assessments and processes

When you have worked out your plan, don’t enact the whole thing. Instead, choose a critical path that fits with your company targets, or a happy path for customers, or a low risk path. Then do the Minimum Viable Experience (MVE) to success. Viability in transformation is really important and often missed, viability is the whole not the part in transformation.

“Don’t make a door handle that doesn’t unlock the door”

You’d think that would be impossible, but the MVP of a door handle is something that looks like a door handle. Making the mechanism to open a door is the MVE. Often in a transformation people focus on rebranding, or creating a new and more exclusive hierarchy, but that is ultimately just changing the appearance. Actually making it work requires that the people or machines that customers and colleagues interact with are measurably higher quality or quicker in delivery.

Fail big and slow

This is pretty much a description of most businesses in their current state, though many would not see themselves that way. My first question to any organisation is ‘where do you get your money from?’, ‘why do you get it?’, ‘are there things expected of you to continue to get it?’. Whether you are a corporation, government organisation or corner shop, getting the money to operate and pay people is part of the clear line around purpose and value.

When you have clarity on those fundamental questions, compare your ideals with where you are now. Are you failing steadily but very slowly? If the answer is yes, you need help.

Karl Smith

CEO, EVP, Consulting Director of Transformation & Change

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