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Move Fast, Break Things

You know all those stories you’ve heard about the Facebook campus? About the crazy perks, the free food, the unbridled energy? They’re true. I was there last week and was lucky enough to get a tour of the HQ and to talk to Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg

The cool vibe, and the endless perks are something to behold. But, it was something small that stuck with me afterwards. One the tour of the offices, I kept seeing this poster in many of the offices:

Love. It.

This resonated with me, and tied together several conversations I’d had in Silicon Valley that week.  Again and again, I heard successful entrepreneurs, academics, and industry observers describe the important role “failing fast” plays in that ecosystem.  In Palo Alto, unlike most other markets, failure has no stigma.  Everyone has tried one or two losing ideas, often just for the fun of it. When it doesn’t work, they pick themselves up, figure out what went wrong, and apply that to the next idea.

Some of the entrepreneurs even went so far as to describe testing absurd new ideas, and the inevitable failure that comes with that, as fun. (Although in a recent twitter exchange with Max Levchin – founder of PayPal – he told me that “failure is part of the fun of working in SV. But failing still sucks.”)

There is a consensus in Palo Alto that innovation requires failure. That an open and iterative process of testing, learning, and improving is the best way to move forward, the best way to tackle the biggest challenges.

We need more of this in the aid industry.  Badly.

There is a nascent effort, led by the good folks at EWB, to remove the stigma of failure, starting with their Failure Reports and the Admitting Failure site.  But we have a long way to go before there is broad acceptance of the “Move fast and break things” slogan.


For one thing, the aid industry is sensitive (or should be) sensitive about possibly doing more harm than good when testing new ideas.  Given the high stakes, it is reasonable that we don’t want to launch new ideas that, if they fail, would risk lives or further undermine the perilous situation of those living in extreme poverty.

I believe, however, that this understandable conservatism has led to unforgivable orthodoxy that derides any possible deviation from “the way we’ve always done it.” Especially since “the way we’ve always done it” is so frequently just not working.

But when you consider the stakes, how can we not move faster? In Sierra Leone, over 1 in 4 children will die before their 5th birthday. That’s more than 50,000 children dying each year of diseases that have already been cured.

I’m making copies of this poster for our offices. We have work to do and we need to move faster.


UPDATE: Warren Buffet may agree. In a speech he just gave in India…

Buffett, who last year tried to persuade U.S. billionaires to commit more than half of their wealth to charity by signing on to the Giving Pledge, says that philanthropists must be prepared to fail, and that if they’re not seeing some failure then they aren’t risking enough.

“If everything they do is successful, they’re a failure,” Buffett says of his children, all three philanthropists. “Because it means they’re taking on things that are too easy. They should be taking on things that are tougher.”



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  1. Edward Rees says:

    This is good. Very good. Lets break things up.

  2. Elmira Bayrasli says:

    Agree with your premise to a certain point. In the development/do-gooder world we’re not producing a product for someone to use. We’re leading a movement. That’s not the same thing as coming up with iterations of Facebook or Google. What you risk moving fast in a movement is losing people and alienating them because 1) they don’t know what’s going on, 2) the pieces of the movement aren’t fitting together because things are spinning to rapidly and 3) you have very disconnected and mixed messages. Breaking is the opposite of unifying.

    I agree that we should take chances in the non profit world. That means not doing everything to please donors, thinking out of the box on projects and being edgy. But without people to help you move this along, you’ve failed regardless of what the end product looks like. Movements require different rules. They shouldn’t be slow. But they should be something people are excited to get behind, take ownership over and fervently believe in.

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