In Praise of Failure
If you wander into the gift shop at the National Air and Space Museum, you’ll see a variety of items with the phrase “Failure is not a option,” referring to the driven attitude of the Apollo Mission Control team. While this sounds like a motivating sentiment, the reality is that all teams experience failure in one form or another, and ignoring the reality that failure is common may take away the confidence you need to take chances.
Failure is measured by expectations. If we aim to be perfect, or set the expectation that only perfection is acceptable, we risk losing opportunities to get valuable feedback. Creating an expectation of perfection can lead to stagnation, not success.
Failure is essential to innovation. When you are afraid of failure and stick to well-known paths, you stop learning and improving.
This is not to say that “learning by failure” means assuming risks blindly. Failures still have costs. The key to successful failures is to create environments where the failure can be controlled—at least reasonably.
For example, Netflix has tooling to introduce failure in their system to both evaluate their robustness and identify areas for improvement in their operations and recovery. While introducing failures is risky, introducing the possibility of failure when you expect them is less risky than needing to respond to a surprise.
A way to mitigate risk is to take chances in a safe environment with the goal of creating incremental, rapid opportunities to learn. Just like with working in small batches or creating small feedback loops, conducting many small experiments results in “aha” moments that each help you understand how best to reach your outcome.
Even when you do everything right, you can still fail, and your failures can be bigger than you expected. But all failures can be great learning opportunities when you are in a safe environment where the focus is on understanding, not blame.
Agile retrospectives are one way to create an environment where you can fail safely. Members of a healthy agile team follow the spirit (even if they don’t use the exact words) of the retrospective prime directive: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” This attitude promotes learning experiences by not punishing a willingness to fail.
Failure happens. By creating a culture that values experimentation with the inevitable small failures and doesn’t place blame for the larger ones, you’ll help your team be more innovative. When viewed as learning experiences, even failures can be successful.