Why Accepting Failure Is Necessary

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The phrase “failure is not an option” is a common cliche often used to motivate people to succeed. But forbidding failure does not prevent it. A mindset that denies failure might actually detract from long-term success.

Software expert Jared Spool explains why the acceptance of failure is a requirement for success in some cases. This isn’t just true in the world of software development. Some famous failures in exploration eventually became successes because the explorers were able to learn lessons from the failures. In exploration, as well as business, any non-fatal failure is an opportunity for the team to learn. More dramatic failures can serve as a reminder that we might not understand a situation as much as we think we do.

In all but the most trivial situations, it’s very likely that things won’t work as planned. This reality is at the core of agile methods. Rather than aiming for perfection, we implement, evaluate, and iterate, applying lessons from missed goals toward the next cycle. Ideally the goals are small, and thus the potential costs of a failure are also small. Even when this isn’t the case, agile methods embrace failure as a learning opportunity; feedback is essential to success.

Unfortunately, while we often are willing to accept that failure will happen, we’d like to believe that it won’t. Remember that fully embracing failure can be valuable. In some cases, explicitly introducing failures can be a valuable approach to improving system resiliency.

In other cases, the value of failure can be unexpected, as this slideshow of failed semiconductor fabrication attempts shows. While we can’t always expect to find art in our mistakes, examining errors—rather than hiding them—provides an opportunity for learning. Instead of viewing failures as bad, consider the point of view that failure can lead to possibility, as conductor Benjamin Zander explains during a 2008 talk at PopTech.

It’s important to manage risk and do your best to avoid the costliest problems. But be aware of the fact that if you are doing something complex and risky, things may go wrong. And being overcautious can lead to missed opportunities.

How does your team treat failure? Has being too cautious caused you to miss opportunities?

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Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and ScrumMaster at Fitbit in Boston, MA. He is the author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, and has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.