I was reading a Bloomberg News article while stuck at the airport heading home. Waiting for the inbound flight Denver where they had 2 feet of snow today. The artilce used the term fail forward. The concept is around innovation and the culture of innovation.
There were example of famous lack of innovation stories. The Western Union internal memo stating This telephone has too many shortcomings to be considered as a means of communication. The wireless music box has not ... commercial use, was the response to David Sarnoff's request to investing in the radio.
These may be urban legends, but Edison did hire dozens of "inventors" to helo him fail forward and share what they learned from these failures.
What Does This Mean For Projects?
It an obvious tennet of agile to fail early and fail often. But that is just a buzz word phrase in practice. It's of no real value in the absence of a PLAN for failure.
Remember a Plan is a strategy for the successful execution of the project. And Strategy is a hypothesis that needs a test to move forward. This is where the fail forward takes place in an actionable manner.
One program I've worked is a BioPharma contract with the US Army for an anti-virus. The Integrated Master Plan has multiple steps to fail forward in the development and testing of a molecule that is the basis of the drug. The researchers are seeking failure in a sense. They having paths they are taking - with intent - to fail forward.
So what this means is:
- We need a risk buy down plan - this plan performs specific work to buy down or retire the risk that the outcome of the project will not be reached on time or on budget. The outcome must of course be compliant with the Technical Performance Measures, otherwise no one will call the project a success.
- We need specific Measures of Effectiveness (MoE) and Measures of Performance (MoP) for the increasing maturity of the product or service the project is producing. These measures have been described before
So the fail forward paradigm must define how you are going to perform work the actually moves the project forward. Edison did not randomly go try out things in his search. He had a Plan and Strategy. It was not a random walk in the woods looking for the solution.
There were 1,000's of trials. 10's of 1,000's of attempts to invent Radar as described in the book Tuxedo Park. All the processes were fail forward, not self organized, self actualized, self guided. But structured, organized, intent of the command efforts to discover something that was not discoverable without failing forward.
This is were the agile approach is at its most powerful.
We know what Done looks like - a blub of light, a radar systems where non existed before. Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atom Bomb describes similar efforts to Fail Forward.
The critical concept, many times missed or mis-used in the agile world, comes from the MoE paper referenced above.
The design of a system is an ill-posed problem that has no solution without a set of criteria to guide choices.
Without this set of criteria to guide the choices, the project wanders aimlessly in the forest of all options. This is the role of a Capabilities statement. The role of a Strategy for fulfilling those capabilities.
The agile notion of Epic provides this. It shows what done looks like in units of measure meanigful to the decision makers. It shows how the fail forward in the pursuit of DONE.
So ask the simple question
What is the Plan that shows the sequence of processes or activities we are going to need to fail forward?