Fail fast and break (the right) things

July 17th, 2020 7 min |

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The real world is demanding the tech world to do things differently. It’s time for more companies to listen.

Move fast and break things – you’ve probably heard some version of this mantra uttered at tech conferences or quoted on countless founder profiles. And granted, it’s made for a rather sticky soundbite and snappy shorthand for startup culture, but it’s also caused some serious harm, and we think it’s time to put it out to pasture.

There’s a fine line between being agile and reckless. In the last few years, we think too many tech players have dashed past that boundary in a rush to be first to market and to scale at all costs. Yes, we’re looking at you, Facebook and Uber: you may have reached that unicorn status, but we’re guessing you’d never envisioned having to defend your actions before a US Congressional panel or facing numerous federal criminal investigations along the way.

After decades of glorifying the “ask forgiveness later” narrative, we’re seeing the fallout and, frankly, it’s pretty ugly. As we mature as an organization, we’re also taking a good hard look at our own innovation processes, and seeing how we can be part of the solution.

Our conclusion: a more intentional, transparent, and human-centric approach to solution-building does exist, and it’s what the world needs from us right now.

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Fast doesn’t need to mean careless

We’ve spoken a lot about how we built a successful company around a culture of quick iterations and acceptance of failure. And to be fair, we’ve probably thrown the fail-fast mantra around ourselves. What we never lost sight of, though – even during GSoft’s scrappy early days – is the impact we have, as a company and as product builders, beyond our office walls.

“We’re in tech, but we’re talking to humans every single day,” says GSoft’s Director of GLab Innovation Lab, Guillaume Chalifoux. That continuous conversation with our users is, in many ways, what’s allowed us to keep our structures, processes, and safeguards grounded in a clear mission and purpose.

It also allows us to stay accountable and adjust our understanding of risk. For our GLab team, risk means spending too much time on a product before bringing it to market to see if there’s a real fit. For our more established teams like Officevibe, risk means alienating our core users by breaking something they already love and need.

"We’re not trying to break anything; we want our products to work, we want people to be delighted and for the product to make sense. We place a strong emphasis on simplicity at GSoft, and we look at simplicity as making things coherent, so if you’re breaking things, you’re making things incoherent."

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Justin Smith

Officevibe Product Strategist, GSoft

It’s worth noting that Facebook’s own mantra has evolved with time, switching to “Slow down and fix your shit” in 2013, and then “Move fast and build things” in 2018.

Finding sustainable speed through collective intelligence

Have you ever considered speeding things up by inviting clients to dive into the development sandbox and play alongside you? At the GLab, we’ve realized over the years that our clients don’t expect our products to be flawless when launched. In fact, part of the draw for them is to be on the front lines helping us improve and shape our new projects.

We liken it to giving customers a half-painted canvas. We put a brush in their hand and invite them to participate in the painting’s journey to completion.

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Employee insights

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We’ve turned that weakness – an imperfect product – into a strength that allows us to communicate with complete vulnerability, and get their empathy and help in return.

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Guillaume Chalifoux

Director of the GLab Innovation Lab

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This, says Guillaume, has allowed his team to get more comfortable with the idea of releasing something that’s good enough. We may know that there are some friction points to work out, but we also know that if 10 of our users get back to us with the same feedback, that’s where we need to focus our attention first. By keeping users in the loop and involved, you gain their trust and make it a lot easier to backtrack and sincerely admit if a mistake was made. Failure then becomes something that’s okay - an integral part of the innovation process - instead of something to be feared.

Taking ownership

Too often tech entrepreneurs confuse innovation with permission to make a big old mess. Yet taking “move fast and break things” as gospel – or emblazoning it on the office mugs – produces the same result every time. Velocity always wins out over quality.

“For us, it’s more about moving fast and making the right bets – then understanding what it looks like when it pays off. We still want to go just as fast as the GLab can, but the nature of our bets has changed.”

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Justin Smith

Officevibe Product Strategist, GSoft

The Silicon Valley win-at-all-costs mindset has indeed set myriad startups on hyper-growth tracks, and continues to do so. But their success was the result of a ‘bust through barriers’ approach; regulations and societal impact be damned. It was inevitable that these companies would eventually break something really important. In many cases, what was broken was not only our understanding of corporate viability, but the public’s sense of trust and safety. As it turns out, that particularly precious metaphorical vase is nearly impossible to glue back together.

“GSoft is a throwback and, therefore, somewhat unique among its peers. Unlike vintage sneakers, nostalgic business strategies where sales determine growth haven’t resonated with the leaders of companies born into the move-fast-and-break-things era of global commerce. Market domination was the goal, and spending other people’s money was the way to achieve it.”

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Kevin Carmichael

If you’re trying to build a smaller, more sustainable business – one that’s rooted in an ecosystem, a community, and a chain of partners – then you need to play a different game. This doesn’t have to mean slowing things way down, but it does mean changing your focus, making the right kind of impact, and deciding that complete domination isn’t the only metric for success.

To frame that shift, we’re using a methodology called Playing to Win. It’s quite simple and comes down to this: are we playing not to lose – which means holding on to our clients – or playing to win?

“There’s a lifetime value to a customer, so if we’ve served them well and they feel they got value out of our product but it’s not quite the right fit anymore, that’s ok. It’s about the opportunity cost of not looking at the bigger opportunity and learning to be okay letting some people go.”

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Justin Smith

Officevibe Product Strategist, GSoft

The (new) way forward

ranted, “fail fast and break the right things” might not be quite as catchy as Zuckerberg’s original motto. But with a growing societal consciousness increasingly rejecting tech’s growth-at-all-costs mindset, it’s definitely the kind of rallying cry our industry needs to get behind. After all, the constant breaking of all things simply isn’t sustainable – neither is the ceaseless burning of hard-to-build and expensive bridges.

So we’ll keep working on the catchphrase, but in the meantime, check out our Careers page and help us work on making our industry better and more viable for everyone.

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