Browse Definitions:

fail fast

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Fail fast is a philosophy that values extensive testing and incremental development to determine whether an idea has value. An important goal of the philosophy is to cut losses when testing reveals something isn’t working and quickly try something else, a concept known as pivoting.

Fail fast is often associated with the lean startup methodology. The philosophy, which is aligned with management by objectives, is often embraced by businesses that want to develop new products and services with less financial risk than traditional approaches to product development provide. The concept of failing fast is also associated with differences between the waterfall and agile approaches to software development. Just as a team using the waterfall methodology hands a completed product over to the customer, so too does a company that uses traditional research and development (R&D) methodologies. In contrast, a company that embraces the fail fast philosophy develops their product or service incrementally, continually testing customer satisfaction to make sure the product or service meets customer needs before investing more time and money.

An important goal of the fail fast philosophy is to avoid the sunk cost effect, which is the tendency for humans to continue investing in something that clearly isn’t working because it’s human nature for people to want to avoid failure. Failing fast seeks to take the stigma out of the word "failure" by emphasizing that the knowledge gained from a failed attempt actually increases the probability of an eventual success.

Fail fast is championed by entrepreneur and author Eric Ries in his 2011 book, "The Lean Startup." Critics of the philosophy often acknowledge the validity of cutting losses early but point out that any philosophy with "failure" in the name should be avoided because the word has such an undesirable connotation. For this reason, the idea of failing fast may also be referred to as "fail fast, succeed faster." The philosophy may also be called fail early, fail better, test early or fail cheaply.

This was last updated in December 2016

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