Instead of celebrating failure, let’s do science.

One of the closely held tenets of agile software development is that we should “fail fast” – we need to do the thing that’s commonly referred to as failure, because it helps us to learn. An aspect of this is that we should try to find ways to celebrate failure, to remove the stigma from it, and give ourselves permission to fail. This is correct, and it’s also admirable; we’re trying to reclaim the word failure and remove its power over us.

I think, however, that this effort is probably doomed to failure. No pun intended.

The problem is that words have power. We give them that power, of course, and we can change it. But so much of the power of words is a collective effort, so much is the product of all of us together, that a small movement has little change of reclaiming a word and repurposing it for their own means. All of the people who haven’t heard of you will still be using the word, and more importantly hearing the word, in the existing context and with the existing meaning.

We may, in our community, talk about “failing fast” and regard that as a good thing. But for those outside our community, who don’t have our context for this use of the word, it sounds like we’re trying to do a bad thing more quickly. And that’s weird. Weird things may make good conversation starters, but I’d rather the conversation was about the kind of benefits we’re trying to achieve than about the semantics of our word choices.

We’ll just skip over the fact that this entire blog post is about word choices. :)

All right, if I don’t think that we should be talking about “failure,” then how should we describe what we’re doing? I think we should use a word that describes both the process we’re using and has positive connotations (at least for most people):


Science is about figuring out the world. It’s about finding out what works and what doesn’t. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do with our “failing fast”? We’re trying to determine what works by testing things. We’re not failing. We’re learning. We’re doing science.

So let’s stop trying to make “failure” into a word that doesn’t mean bad things. Let’s instead stop using it to describe what we’re doing when we learn. Let’s talk about learning what doesn’t work. Because that’s an unambiguously good thing.

Who’s with me?

2 thoughts on “Instead of celebrating failure, let’s do science.

  1. Deborah Arndt

    Makes sense to me. Think of Edison, trying one material after another to use for a filament and not being discouraged, just saying he found another way that ddn’t work.

  2. TalleySueNYC

    “Experiment”–that’s a useful term.

    “rapid experiment” is useful as well.

    I also immediately thought about Thomas Edison, and his saying that an experiment that didn’t work simply got him closer to the final solution because it took one more thing OFF the table.


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