An Agile Mindset: Learning Early, Not Failing Fast

One of the things I like about agile is the fact that it encourages me to learn. I wish I were perfect, able to learn things as soon as I try them. However, I am all too human. It takes me time to learn.

I just upgraded one of my text-processing programs, and now about half of my learned behavior is wrong—of course, it’s not the half I expect. But I still have deliverables. I need to learn this program so I can write my columns and articles.

Some people call this process “failing fast,” but I have never liked that phrase. To me, it tells other people I am an incompetent doofus. I’m not interested in that.

On the other hand, I love learning early. The less investment I need to place in my learning, the more valuable that learning is for me. Maybe you feel that way, too.

Let me go meta for a little bit and talk not about the learning itself, but the feeling about the learning.

When I learn early, I feel good about myself. Similarly, when I stopped talking about “failing fast” and started talking about “learning early,” my clients said they were happier. The teams and managers I coached or consulted with appreciated the learning. Almost no one seems to value failing.

I do encounter the odd manager or team member who wishes they didn’t have to learn at all. They want to absorb the information without the investment of time or practice. However, I meet very few of them.

Even the senior managers are delighted with early learning. One of them said to me, “I love the fact that this team is learning how to work together and that team is learning how to deliver.” He paused, then said, “We were a pretty strict waterfall shop, and agile and all the personal and team responsibility is a new thing for us. We’ll have project risks and people ‘problems’ [his air quotes] until we get this right. It might be a while. On the other hand, we’re delivering value really fast now. It’s worth it.”

Not all managers will be as enlightened as this guy. Neither will everyone on the teams. They have years of experience in avoiding risks, not managing the environment that created the risks.

Learning early helps us manage risks proactively, and it helps us see value. We can learn early and maybe not fail at all.

I hope you consider learning early instead of failing fast. You might think it’s just a change of terminology, but for me—and for the teams and managers I work with—I find it’s a change of mindset, too.

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