Fail Fast: Becoming a learning organisation

Adevinta
Adevinta Tech Blog
Published in
5 min readApr 22, 2022

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by Martin Heckmann, Head of Classifieds Product at mobile.de — part of Adevinta

Introduction

Many companies claim to be a learning organisation, by which they mean acquiring knowledge, trying things out, succeeding, or even failing from time to time. To fail is to learn and sharing your failures, in turn, strengthens the learning — but that’s only possible if the right framework exists and there’s a supportive corporate culture. This is the story of “Fail Fast” at mobile.de, the format we created to share, learn and move towards becoming a “learning organisation”.

Once upon a time in Mexico

Legend has it that five friends, during a night of drinking and exchanging entrepreneurial stories in Mexico, wondered why people only ever talk about the successes of Zuckerberg and Gates but nobody ever talks about their own failures. From this, Fail Fast was born, and within just a few years, it would become a worldwide movement.

From Mexico back to Berlin

While the principle of Fail Fast is particularly well-suited to failed business models in the start-up scene, many established companies have also benefited. One example is the Otto Group, one of the market leaders in mail-order for over 70 years. They share about their first event and failures in their company blog.

Of course, we don’t have 70 years of experience to work with, but like every company, we must constantly develop and learn. The shift towards agile values and work methods has gained enormous momentum at mobile.de in recent years. This has led to experimenting more: on our platform, in our organisational structure, in our communications and in our meeting and presentation formats.

The first steps

We started in 2018 within our Product & Tech department. The more we talked about the need for a systematic agile transformation, the more we realised that we only talked about successes and rarely about failures. There was simply no space and no format beyond internal team retrospectives for the latter. As an organisation, we were in danger of missing opportunities to improve and move away from a failure culture towards a learning culture.

As with agile product development, it’s important to follow the build-measure-learn principle when introducing new formats and events. In our case, we did a test run with a small group interested in the concept of learning organisations. We presented one failure each from these three areas: UX, product and technology. The idea was to find out whether we could establish Fail Fast at mobile.de and in what format (duration, presentation and setting).

A nicer way to fail: pizza at the Fail Fast test run

Let’s get started

At the first official Fail Fast event a few weeks later, we focused on the Product & Tech departments. If the launch was successful, we’d then integrate other departments step by step. After the first test run, we established the following criteria:

● Keep the context related to mobile.de

● Each story was given seven to ten minutes

● Story structure: 1. Background; 2. Details of the failure; 3. Learnings

● No set format: PowerPoint, open dialogue, role play, etc.

● But mostly: fun and interaction

We allocated 60 minutes (three stories) plus a short panel discussion on the topic of “Learning Organisations”. To strengthen both the appeal of the format and the sense of community, we ordered drinks and pizza for everyone.

The apprehension within the planning team was high, as we didn’t know if anyone would be interested. In the end, the session was a success as thirty colleagues attended and we received a clear “go” to organise further more.

Failed and still got his act together in the end: a team lead talking about his project experiences

Scaling up

For the first few sessions, we had to actively approach colleagues to gather stories about their failures. Over time, we started receiving more and more enquiries from the teams and we saw a genuine willingness to share their stories with a larger group.

We settled on quarterly Fail Fast sessions and invited stakeholders from other parts of the company to join; presentations and stories from team leaders triggered interest among attendees. In many organisations, managers, unfortunately, don’t speak openly with their teams about their own mistakes, failures and weaknesses. Yet, if management can lead by showing this example, a lot of positive energy can arise and failure will no longer be seen as a flaw, but as an opportunity.

Our tech leadership team presenting their failures

Fail Fast 2.0

In 2020, COVID-19 presented us with the challenge of how to rethink the format and continue with Fail Fast. A crisis always means the opportunity to try something new. Instead of meeting in a confined space over beer and pizza, we met online, which turned out to be an opportunity to roll out the concept across the rest of the company.

Today, up to 100 colleagues attend those sessions. Even top management uses the framework to share their failures and learnings, which the employees have received extremely positively. After getting some feedback, we changed the initial name “Fuckup Night” to “Fail Fast”, in order to be more aligned with the fundamental concept. Failing early means learning early and thus reaching success sooner.

What did we learn?

Fail Fast has firmly established itself at mobile.de, providing us with a constructive platform to openly talk about our failures and share the lessons we learned from those failures. On its own, this format won’t create a learning organisation, but it’s an important building block alongside many others in creating a framework beyond agile team events — such as retrospectives and post-mortems — from which we can all learn.

Here are our five top tips:

  1. Start small and scale up
  2. Appoint one or more owners to develop the format
  3. Involve managers early on
  4. Establish regularity (eg. once a quarter)
  5. Encourage discussion and interaction during the sessions

Have fun failing and learning!

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Adevinta
Adevinta Tech Blog

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