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Failing the Right Way / Never Let a Good Failure go to Waste

by: Precocity

Failure isn’t the first thing anyone wants to consider when working on a project, but it definitely isn’t the last thing your team should think about either. Failure can be an important tool for teams, it provides opportunities to innovate, and can lead to the discovery of solutions that otherwise might not have been apparent or possible beforehand. This is especially true when dealing in technology initiatives, as they frequently require significant amounts of experimentation and as any good scientist would attest, not all experiments succeed.

In this post, we share a few strategies we use to ensure that a good failure never goes to waste, along with a few recommendations to help you do the same with your team.

What is positive failure?

Positive failure is a concept that has been explored in countless articles and books about startups, Silicon Valley majors, and tech luminaries. Writers cite the famous mantras that serve as the tech elite’s guiding principles: “Fail Fast, Fail Often”, “Fail Forward”, “Fail Better”, and so on and go on to explain how learning from the failures of their early years led to their later success. What we don’t often get from the chronicles of disruptors is an understanding of what exactly makes failure positive, but here are a few common elements to help you recognize a “good” failure:

Positive failure should…

  • Plead to positive outcomes eventually, but don’t expect that to happen magically without hard work
  • Serve as a learning experience for you and your team, if you don’t learn from your mistakes…
  • Be shared, there may be an “i” in failure, but a successful team doesn’t fail independently
  • Lead to advances that might deviate from conventional wisdom and should be shared beyond your team (give back to the communities that help you)

If you have noticed that your team or organization struggles with or has outcomes counter to the points above, you might have to undergo a cultural transformation to address problems that stem from systematic rejection or persecution of failure.

How do you foster a culture that can fail the right way?

After you understand how to recognize positive failure, the next step is to understand how to foster a culture that embraces failing the right way in your organization. This is one of the most difficult transformations to accomplish, especially in larger organizations. This is due to the heightened potential impacts of failure, and because a majority of the organization is outside of the immediate circle of a project, which makes it difficult to understand in fullness what led to the failure and what was done to recover.

If you decide to undergo this transformation, we offer the following do’s and don’ts as a guide to help your team start the change:

DO

  • Coach your team to be accepting of failure whether it is theirs or otherwise
  • Create an environment that encourages smart risk taking and reward those who do when they succeed
  • Do your best to quick recover from any bumps in the road
  • Work to understand what happened as completely as possible and identify the root cause(s)
  • Be open and admit when mistakes are made at every level of your organization and work as a team to come up with solutions to address them
  • Dedicate time to identifying additional ‘aftershock’ risks and put preventative measures into place
  • Remember that just as you succeed as a team, you also fail as a team
  • Promote the attitude and practice of learning from failures, don’t let a good failure go to waste

DON’T

  • Openly criticize or ridicule the failure of others, this behavior creates an environment that is not accepting of failure as a means for growth and improvement
  • Single individuals or groups out for failures to assign blame, the blame game doesn’t fix the problem and will make things worse
  • Take failure personally, a small failure from time to time isn’t a reflection on your ability to grow and to innovate
  • Let failures loom over your team indefinitely, do your best to move quickly to solve issues as a long-term cloud over the team is toxic
  • Set out to fail by making uninformed decisions, if you do you’re destined to be correct. Failure should be an unintended outcome and shouldn’t be a mantra.
  • Jump to a solution, quick thinking is one thing, but reacting without data or understanding will lead to subsequent failures

These principles will help you to kick start your culture of experimentation and will ensure that your team is positioned to overcome challenges in their day-to-day work and on large-scale initiatives.

How do you fail the right way?

Now that we understand how to identify positive failure and can start to foster a culture that looks at failure the right way, we can discuss tactical methods for handling failure when it happens. In our experience, to properly address issues you should follow the four R’s: Respond, Resolve, Reflect, and Recover. These stages can be executed in a repeated cycle depending on your situation and are likely to require some amount of iteration to completely address issues.

Respond

Take action to acknowledge and mitigate the issue(s) the moment they are identified, communicate what has occurred and what is being done initially to respond to the issue.

Resolve

Devise a plan and put it into action as quickly as possible without being strictly reactive, address immediate problems first to give your team time to tackle more broad or difficult ones.

Reflect

Take a retrospective look at what led to the failure and how you and your team addressed the issue, use this period to focus on areas for improvement (process, tools, communication, decision making, etc.). You should always exit a crisis with a concise understanding of what took place and how things ended up in that situation.

Recover

Once your team is out of the cycle of mitigating a specific situation, spend time addressing the “environmental” elements that led to the failure and make adjustments that ensure that your team won’t fail the same way twice.

The FourRs

Tips for preventing failure, even though it isn’t bad!

Beyond the above recommendations, here are a few miscellaneous tips to help your team prevent project pitfalls and fantastic failures:

  • Be communicative and transparent about every facet of your project within reason to ensure that there are multiple sets of eyes that have enough information to provide constructive input and support
  • Collect data points on everything you can about what your team has done and what the outcome is, one of the biggest mistakes we see teams make is that they take on exploratory work (spikes) and they don’t prepare by setting entry and exit criteria which then leads to a nebulous task that is never “complete” because of a lack of a definition of success
  • Keep track of progress and issues through reporting, a bad burndown or fluctuating velocity chart isn’t sufficient on its own. Use information from retrospectives and other checkpoints to help you interpret and understand successes and pitfalls so that your team can repeat positive patterns and avoid negative ones in the future.
  • Use knowledge bases and retrospectives, they are great ways for your team to reflect on issues and can be invaluable to your team to understand smaller failures to prevent bigger ones

We can help!

Have a project that could use some help overcoming an especially difficult challenge? Have a team that could use some support through expertise and technical guidance? Reach out to us so we can set up a call to discuss your organization’s needs.

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