What if we fail?

People are often afraid to make mistakes. They do things to prevent that something might go wrong and avoid doing things that might fail. And if it does go wrong then they don’t talk about it. Is it really bad if once in a while something goes wrong? If something can go wrong, let arrange for it to happen as soon as possible, because then you can quickly learn from it. Create a culture where failure is allowed so that we can all learn from it and find ways to make fewer mistakes!

What are you afraid of?

Let’s suppose it goes wrong, then what? What’s the worst that could happen? Ok, there are situations that you definitely want to avoid (for example, when it comes to human lives), but quite often it’s not so bad if something goes wrong once that we can can solve easily and quickly. We still suffer the most from the suffering we fear. But there’s no need for that, so let’s change it.

We also make it worse by blaming people for mistakes. Often that’s an diversion, because let’s be honest: who makes no mistakes? A culture in which you may make mistakes, in which you can honestly say that it went wrong, that you are unsure of something, is often much more effective. In such a cultures, it is also easier to use the experience and strengths of employees to find solutions together. Stop blaming each other, starting working together!

Fail fast!

If things go wrong, you want to know it quickly. To waste less time and money, and learn faster. It will fail anyway, so better if it happens now, and not in a few weeks or months. Therefore, I recommend people to “test” risky things as soon as possible. For instance by working in an agile way to develop a first version of a product and ask your customers for feedback. Design a safe-to-fail experiment to try something new. Raise critical issues in a new partnership at the beginning to find out quickly if there are breakpoints which can endanger the collaboration.

If you are adopting a new way of working (agile, Scrum, Kanban, etc), you can talk about it for weeks, but often it is more effective to just start doing it, and periodically evaluate (eg with agile retrospectives) how it goes. If things go well, then you will have a nice example of how it works, which you and others can learn from. If it fails, the damage is limited since you can take action quickly.

Watch and listen!

Often there are signs already at the beginning of a project that something is not going well. Ignoring them or postponing things doesn’t help you, it’s better to fail fast to address the problems. You need to pay attention, you can observe a lot by just watching. Show that you appreciate it when people identify potential problems, do not shoot the messenger!

A short cycled improvement approach can be very effective. It helps people to listen better, to see signs and mention them, and to become continuously better.

Learn from failure!

So it’s ok if failure happens. But it should not go wrong too often, you don’t ant similar problems happening over and over again (that is called insanity).  You can do Root Cause Analysis to avoid similar problems in the future. There are plenty of ways to do retrospectives, in which you look back at what has happened, and agree upon preventive actions. You can also use self-organization and open spaces to involve employees in changing their way of working method to do continuous sustainable improvement.

A solution-focused approach (for instance with a strength based retrospective) can help you to change using your strengths. In Lean you can identify waste and explore ways to tackle it using existing skills that people already have. There are many good ways to learn from mistakes, so I am surprised that there are still people who don’t use them. Leverage your people and their strengths, empower your teams!

A journey to reduce mistakes 

Failure is essential in a learning organization, it’s trial and error that you need to deliver quicker. You should not prevent failure but make it safe-to-fail. Learn from the mistakes that are made and prevent making similar mistakes in the future. But dare to try new things, don’t be afraid to fail, it can only make you better!

If you want to learn more about using experiments and trying new ways of working, then join my workshop Getting More out of Agile and Lean. In this workshop you will experience agile practices for teams and stakeholders with advice on how to deploy them, and tips and tricks to become more agile and lean. It will help you to develop the right products for your business and customers, reduce your delivery time, increase the quality of your software, and create happy high performing teams.

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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