Move Fast and (actually) Break Things


“Move fast and Break things” (MF&BT) The company mantra is as common in the Bay Area startup scene as a Chrome backpack. Why? It captures the essence of why startups run by 20-somethings in hoodies can make headway into markets monopolized by Fortune 500 behemoths. More generally, it describes why the Silicon Valley tech industry has thrived in the last half century. If you are involved in tech, it defines the culture here: Take risks. However, the phrase has become so common that seeing a startup poster with MF&BT has become the equivalent of a boat of rowers paddling above “TEAMWORK”. Plenty an engineer has worked with a team that espoused the notion without success. The thing is, it’s not enough to tell employees to MF&BT and expect a faster MVP in the same way that it is meaningless and silly to tell people to increase their “TEAMWORK”. how excited would you be to see this poster at work? These phrases become vapid in the mouths of management who have forgotten the hard work involved in creating human and computer systems that naturally embody these ideals. The mistake is in thinking that these behaviors are the root of why some startups are successful and some are not. It is a mistake to aspire to these ideals without understanding that teams MF&BT not because of a poster in the break room, or because management told them so, but because that is what naturally comes to them. Some teams just naturally MF&BT, others don’t. But why? Teams that MF&BT:

  1. Are not afraid of repercussions when they break things
  2. Quickly learn lessons when things break
  3. Can “unbreak” their systems with minimal effort

To make this happen, they are usually good at creating policies and cultivating workplace habits that focus on feedback, learning from failure, and fault tolerance. Let’s examine these in more detail: dramatic business people wearing black and white

1. Feedback

Employee feedback systems are boring, unappreciated, and hard. Creating a culture that encourages everyone to give feedback everyday is even harder. But doing so ensures that everyone can feel safe when they break things and know that it is sanctioned within the group.

  • When someone has a great idea, let them know! Feedback doesn’t just mean negative feedback. Positive feedback increases morale and helps communicate what everyone wants to see more of.
  • Cultivate your ability to give constructive criticism. This is a difficult skill that can take a lifetime to perfect, so start today! When having to give criticism, approach it as a challenge to improve your skills instead of an uncomfortable task to get over with quickly. There is nothing that you can read that will improve your skill here. Instead, find people who are known for giving good feedback and watch them. Then, find every opportunity you can to practice what they preach. I’ve found that people who are good at constructive criticism are great listeners, empathizers, and instinctively know how to walk the fine line between being realistic and demoralizing.
  • Make feedback a regular process. At Tint, we’ve instituted monthly feedbacks where every employee requests feedback from at least 3 others in the company, and we take company time to introspect and write thoughtful feedback about what we like and what we want to see improved professionally.

Fail wall at Spotify

2. Learning from failure

Creating policies that allow people to examine failures without blame.

  • After every failure whether it’s a missed sales quota or system downtime, gather the team and figure out what went wrong, without blame, without shame. Etsy has a great blog post on how they conduct their blameless postmortems. The most important thing is to NOT ignore failure and to NOT point fingers.
  • Write down what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what was learned, and email it out to everyone on the team. It helps everyone understand that failures are okay as long as we learn from them and helps spread knowledge.
  • Write blog posts about your most notable failures. That way the community at large can see how you fixed the problem. You’re probably not the only one that failed!
  • Create a fail wall at the office! You can see from the photo above the Fail Wall created by Spotify engineers. They have a great video series on their engineering culture that describes how they promote failure.

XKCD: Move fast and break things

3. Fault Tolerance

Being able to easily tell when things go wrong and being okay with changing direction quickly is easier said than done. For some occupations, it’s not even possible. Luckily, it’s probably possible for you.

  • Aspire to having great continuous integration - This means having high test coverage, fast build times, and as much automation as possible. Obviously, this takes a lot of work. But the faster it is to test code, the faster it is to write code.
  • If your team is large enough, aspire to have innovative continuous integration. Github’s ChatOps is a great example of how far operations can be taken.
  • Be disciplined about ROI. At TINT, we used to not formally measure the impact of going to social media conferences. However, we realized that without measuring impact, we can’t discern whether it was worth it or not.
  • Leadership should encourage experimentation. If someone has an idea that they think could improve the process, but involves some risk, they should be given the freedom to try it out! Teams that experiment naturally fail more (in a good way), and failing more will make a team naturally more fault tolerant.

None of these techniques make for a sexy inspiration poster, but iterating on HR surveys for employee feedback are just as important, if not more important, as how many features get shipped every month. Ironically, MF&BT requires the opposite of recklessness. It requires attention to detail and more importantly, discipline.