Failure is not an option.
No, it’s inevitable.
The issue is, first, will I accept that reality? Then can I act so that when I do fail, it is cheap and useful? When I do fail I do not do something worse: take failure as my identity. No, I am not a failure, but I do fail. The question is, did I learn from that failure?
Time was when we would develop methodologies that tried to avoid failure altogether. I now realise that this attempt was impossible and even dangerous. The way it was typically evidenced in project management was to start further and further back in design:
“We need a plan first.” (This seems like good sense, doesn’t it?)
“Well, we need a business case first.” (Of course, who would argue with that; I wouldn’t.)
“Yes but before that, we need a Project Brief.”
“Yes, but before that, we need a Project Mandate.”
“OK, but before that, we need some Strategic Objectives.”
“Yes, but first we need our Vision, Mission and Values.”
We can carry this seemingly-rational nonsense on for as long as we wish – many consultants and business gurus do just that.
Confession time: I own up to having done that as well.
I have repented!
I sometimes think we have created a management Catch 22, where we never achieve anything substantive.Click to Tweet
But when do we do get around to doing something? Where is the execution?
“Oh, no. We’re not ready for that yet. What if we do the wrong thing or do it badly?”
I sometimes think we’ve created a kind of management Catch 22 where we go around and around in ever-decreasing circles, never achieving anything substantive. Fear of failure has become a sort of management political correctness. It’s time to face this demon.
Is failure always a bad thing? What if the worst failure of all is never achieving a return on our efforts. I believe this is a subtle and sophisticated paralysis by analysis.
There are three challenges we need to face in breaking out of this syndrome:
- The world is always more complex than our models. It is a world where there are unknowns. The unknowns prevent us from planning out all failure. Only as we experiment, execute, are we going to discover more about that complexity.
- We often operate in a management culture of fear. Fear is always dangerous counsellor. Fear is a terrible strategy and a poor modus operandi. We need courage. With courage, we can devise small steps of execution where we are not betting the farm, but instead discovering more and learning from these unexpected results.
- Failure can become personal. We can allow it to become our identity. This is a lie. I am not a failure, but I do fail. The question is: Do I learn enough from that failure and adapt?
I remember when I spoke alongside my friend and former colleague, Richard Rose, at an Agile Project Management conference. We found many there who were new to Agile. Others, by contrast, had been so long immersed in Agile practice that they had forgotten the real value of incremental, Just-Enough-Design-Up-Front management.
At one point I said, “Failure is not an option, it’s inevitable.” I saw lights go on all around the room.
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Those weary with traditional management that promised much but delivered little, and those immersed in newer, more empirical approaches both need to be aware of the value of limited failure. We hypothesise about this complex world, test, examine the results, adapt and move on. W.E. Deming had nailed this years ago in his PDCA cycle. See my earlier article on this: Ever-Increasing Circles.
We need an empirical humility about what will happen if we do such-and-such, test and then see if we are right.
Marketers talk about the Call to Action, the CTA. Maybe we all need a CTF, a Call to Failure.
OK. So I have a question for you. How do you make sure you learn from a ‘failure’? I’m really interested. Please share your approach below. The rest of us would really value it!