Sunday, April 28, 2013


“Fail Fast:” Fumbling Towards a Theory

“Fail Fast” is a mantra among entrepreneurs.  It means that if it becomes clear that a given project isn’t working, the best move is to pull the plug quickly so you don’t lose more time you could have spent on something else.  It’s based on minimizing opportunity cost, and it assumes a certain amount of failure as a feature of the system.

In public higher ed, at least on the teaching side, we seem to take the opposite tack.  Any failure at all is dangerous to admit, so it’s politically better to let a substandard program limp along than to be the bad guy who actually pulls the plug.  We start things slowly -- “pilot” is the term of art -- and then scale them up (or not) based only partly on results.  To make matters worse, many states now are basing significant portions of their appropriations on “performance,” as measured by numerical goals for, say, graduation rates.  In that setting, fast failure can quickly become permanent, since this year’s drop saps the resources that could have gone to trying something new next year.

Given very different culture, rules, and incentives, it’s not surprising that higher ed is as methodologically conservative as it is.  (“Politically” is another matter.)  If change is taken as either a threat or an implied indictment, rather than an opportunity, then a downward spiral -- first slow, but gradually getting faster --  is the predictable outcome.  As the good folks at Kodak and Blockbuster can attest, the world moves on whether you give it permission or not.  Failing to adapt doesn’t stop change.

My own view is that we need to distinguish mission from form, and not continue the mistake of conflating the two.  When the form itself becomes the mission -- when maintaining a traditional structure takes precedence over actually achieving a social goal -- then we’ve lost our way.  Form should be subordinate to mission; if a form that once helped no longer does, then it needs to be changed.  If renting movies for home viewing is the goal, then filling stores with dvd’s made a great deal of sense in 2000 and no sense at all in 2013.  If providing high-quality, accessible education is the goal, then we need to think seriously about the forms best suited to do that now and in the near future.  To dust off a wonderful old churchly word, subordinating mission to form is idolatry.

in a culture prone to idolatry, “fail fast” sounds heretical.  (Yes, the religious language is intentional -- see this post from a few weeks ago.)  Admittedly, “fast” is a relative term; given how long it takes to get results, even a determined reformer would need a few years to determine whether something was working or not.  But in academic time, two or three years is quick.  

Many colleges handle the dilemma by bifurcating the organization.  They’ll have a “continuing education” side that’s flexible, responsive, and frankly utilitarian, and a “traditional” side that is none of those things.  (In many cases, profits from the secular side offset the losses on the traditional side.)  The traditional side generates prestige, and the continuing ed side generates income.  Each enables the other.  Without income, the prestige side would go out of business.  Without prestige, the income-generating side would have a harder time.  

But I’m not sure that bifurcation is a long-term solution.  It feels more like buying time.

I’m fumbling towards a theory, but I’m not there yet.  Wise and worldly readers, what would “fail fast” look like in an academic context?

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