March 29, 2009

Be Willing to See Failure

There is an old saying that I quite like: "If you’re never failing, you aren't trying."

The simplest way to read this adage is as an exhortation to take more risks, to stop playing it safe and undertake bigger and scarier projects.

An equally valuable second reading is to take this as a salve to failure -- it is OK to have failed or had a set back because it means you were trying something challenging.

But there is a subtler reading that I want to explore that comes into play when you are trying, and you doseem to be succeeding, that addresses a more dangerous form of failure: the failure to perceive failure.

Anyone who has spent any time doing development projects (for software or otherwise), has probably heard of, if not actively participated in, a project that went along just fine for months, only to burst into flame as some final deadline approached. And by going along just fine, I mean that people were trying: meetings were held, decisions were made, mountains of code were written, documents filled the shelves, metrics were monitored.

But mysteriously, as the looming deadline approached, all kinds of critical problems seemingly popped out of nowhere, delaying delivery, running up costs, creating a sudden, unforeseen crisis.

(Sounds a lot like our current world-wide financial crisis, doesn't it?)

So what went wrong?

Rarely do problems just pop out of nowhere. More often, we simply become aware of them suddenly. And sometimes that’s because we didn’t want to be aware of them, because we wanted to focus on the success instead of the failure.

Unfortunately, I think this is a major challenge in our North American cultural temperament. (People from other locales can assess this for their own situation.)

We tend to value optimism, the power of positive thinking, the positive spin to the point where any talk of real risks or real failings tends to sound like pessimism or cattiness. We tend to assume that those who question a person, project or process that seems to be succeeding are guilty of sour grapes or defeatism.

So a sub-prime mortgage crisis can "sneak up on us" and bring down an Alice-in-Wonderland financial system, and a project that was "going along fine" can suddenly go off the rails.

The solution to this problem is to accept that failures and problems are, as the adage suggests, a necessary side effect of trying to accomplish something, and that success doesn’t come from ignoring problems but from finding creative and effective solutions to solve or mitigate them. And once we’ve accepted this, we can change our team culture and practices to help flush problems and failures out of the bushes sooner.

In software development, there are a number of techniques that are gaining wide acceptance, such as iterative delivery, open communication between clients and teams, continuous integration, test-driven development, and others, that solve this very problem.

These techniques all work by creating more frequent opportunities to put a project through its paces, so that weaknesses, misunderstandings and oversights are spotted sooner, and so that successes have really proven themselves, and can be safely built upon.

A good rule of thumb is that if you are aren’t routinely finding unexpected problems or failures when using such techniques, you probably aren’t using them rigorously enough.

Which leads us back to the opening adage, but maybe in this context it should be changed to: "If you’re never failing, you aren't looking."

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