The whole idea of having a “fail-fast” philosophy for new projects is problematic in a lot of ways. Here’s the deal: “Fail Fast" is a strategy that only works for about half of the people out there who might be working on a project.
Imagine you were totally omniscient, and could split your developers into two teams based on their character traits and working styles.
Let's call these two teams Team Burny-Ouchy and Team Cassandra.
Team Burny-Ouchy is very gung-ho. They like to do things. BIG THINGS! And they're very rah-rah, and will storm ahead with their type-A personalities, and do stuff, and get things done.
But they have one specific failing: in order to figure out if a stove or oven or fire or thermonuclear detonation is hot, they have to touch it with their finger, burn their finger, and then possibly go to the emergency room.
Well, I mean, it looks like it might be hot, but I’m really going to have to touch it to be certain.
Team Cassandra, on the other hand, extrapolates based on available data and models, and can tell you before they've even started what the likely outcome is.
They have a really annoying problem though: to the rest of the world, they look like the world’s worst set of pessimistic bastards who enjoy nothing more than pissing on everyone else’s parades. They can tell you all the reasons why a given venture won't succeed. Sometimes they can tell you how to fix it so that it will succeed. And weirdly, they often seem to be able to predict the future by about 6-36 months.
Ever wonder where the term “tearing your hear out” came from? Apparently, Greek mythology.
Team Burny-Ouchy is awesome. They make bold bets. They move fast. They show considerable progress. They're team players. They're massively optimistic, and see no reason why they won't succeed at everything they do.
Team Cassandra has just spent the last three months being a thorn in the side of Team Burny-Ouchy. They can see a cliff coming. But by now, Team Cassandra has made everyone tune them out. Everyone is sick of hearing Team Cassandra complain, bitch, moan, and make ludicrous predictions about the future - after all, how can they know?
Answer: It’s the defocussed temporal perception plate, obviously.
Team Burny-Ouchy is unquestionable. And heck, the CEO, VP, Exec Management and all are people who've all been founder members of Team Burny-Ouchy in the past. Which means that obviously, from experience, it’s the only way to succeed and to achieve that success – it’s proven, it works, and it gets results. Screw those Debbie Downer Team Cassandra folks. What have they ever done?
(The answer to this is usually that Team Cassandra – if they’re bought in – run alongside Team Burny-Ouchy cleaning up as much mess as possible before it becomes a real-world problem, while still waving futilely at Team Burny-Ouchy that they’re running out of railway-line because the bridge up ahead was taken out in a recent storm).
Team Cassandra is quickly pushed to one side, while Team Burny-Ouchy storms ahead. After three years of burning through money, they deliver half of what they set out to, late. It's a huge failure.
It’s moist, and it has chocolate in it – what more do you want?
Meanwhile, Team Cassandra gets the unenviable position of saying "Yes. We told you so. Three years ago.", and are yet again ignored for not being good team-mates.
They'll never survive in the business world without confidence in their abilities.
(Ignoring, of course, the fact that Team Cassandra is indeed confident in their abilities; it's just that they're not confident in lots of other things and will tell you so, hoping that you'll avoid the harsh realities ahead).
So how do you make the most out of these two competing groups?
Teams like Team Burny-Ouchy require a fail-fast culture, because they need to do things - sometimes lots of things - before they can succeed at one. If you put all your eggs in one basket with Team Burny-Ouchy players, you're putting yourself at risk. It's better to force them to focus on the hard part of whatever they're trying to achieve, and prove that it's possible rather than to give them the keys to the castle from the get-go.
Team Cassandra on the other hand? You can trust them. They're 90% right. They're not exciting. They won't get your blood pumping. They won't get you on board with their grand vision to change the world. And as a result, you won't give them funding to begin with.
Even worse, if you do give them funding, you might find that they don’t follow a linear progress curve. They’re not usually one to give you flashy progress updates for the sake of them – which is usually something that investors desperately need to let them know that their money isn’t just evaporating, or being used to build a yacht for the start-up’s CEO.
If you're a start-up, it helps to have both people. Preferably balancing each other out. And this isn't just a theoretical exercise either - I know plenty of people from both camps. The trick is, that both sides have to listen to one another, objectively, and analyze what each other are bringing to the table.
Team Burny-Ouchy members need reigning in a little – which is nearly impossible. So a fail-fast approach to their parts of a project is important.
Team Cassandra members need to be pushed out of their comfort zones a little – they’re more risk averse than Team Burny-Ouchy members by nature, and can usually do better by taking a few risks and letting their natural temperament catch them before they fall.
They also need to be listened to and acknowledged occasionally, otherwise they’ll sink into a quagmire of low productivity and low morale.
The true secret of all of this?
There’s a little bit of each team in all of us. While some people are overtly members of either camp, a lot of us – as with any spectrum – feature elements of both.
As for me, and my style? I know I'm going to burn my finger on this hot thing. I don't need to touch it to find out.
Don’t mistake cynicism for what Team Cassandra brings to the table. As a guy from England, I can happily paint that particular kind of cynicism as whiny Britishness. It’s easy, as a Brit, to complain and whinge and moan, and plant a stake in the ground as to why the world is a terrible place, and everyone else in it is an idiot. It’s also not productive at all. It’s just toxic. And it’s very different from being a mildly forward-looking realist. Remaining up-beat while laying out as complete a map of the territory as possible is one of the most valuable things that a Team Cassandra member can do.
Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.
The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).