How comfortable are you with failure?
Yesterday I was reading this article on Medium, where the author, a successful entrepreneur, talks about failure. About ‘failing at failing’ to be more precise. While reiterating facts that we already know - failure is inevitable, dealing with employees who’ve failed can be hard, admitting failure is not something many of us easily do - he put out an interesting personal conclusion that can make a big difference in thinking:
Failing does not make you a failure.
Failing means admitting and accepting you’ve made a mistake, learning what’s to be learned, and moving on once you’ve done that. The key lies in recognising failure is a normal part of the business routine.
Same rules apply to projects, programmes, processes and products. Projects will not always be successful. Products will not always achieve the market success you’ve hoped for. Processes can and should improve and evolve. Programmes will not always go as planned.
This is why in Agile we have the philosophy called ‘fail fast’. For everyone new to this philosophy and everyone who didn’t quite find a way to embrace failure, let’s be a bit more explicit.
Why is it important to accept failure?
Accepting that failure can and will occur in business environments, ‘Fail fast’ implies that if a project, programme or product is set to fail, it’s best to let it fail fast, so that you can save time and money. In other words, if the requirements of the business case are not met, the delivery can fail fast before you waste too much time and money.
Still talking about the same principle, many Agile experts refer to ‘fail fast’ as ‘learn fast’: your team, your customer and your stakeholders learn that they are going in the wrong direction, at which point they stop. Then, they let themselves decide which the right direction to go is, or whether to re-start the project.
The whole concept of ‘fail fast’ does not mean that you seek to fail. It means you accept failure and make the best out of it thus avoiding an even greater resource wastage.
Failure stories to inspire you
Think about some of the biggest brands and business leaders out there. Many of them have failed at some point. They have learned from their mistakes, moved on or started all over.
Nespresso. Before becoming a high-end coffee brand, Nespresso tried to market its tasty coffee primarily to businesses, their key message being ‘give a great coffee to your employees’. This approach failed since offering expensive coffee to employees wasn’t top priority for business owners. Repositioning themselves, Nespresso then started marketing its products to women - to stay-at-home mums, offering them to have a great coffee treat to enjoy with their friends within arms reach.
Bill Gates’ first company, Traf-O-Data, meant to process data from traffic tapes, failed due to the fact that the product was barely working. He then founded Microsoft - the rest is history.
Apple legend Steve Jobs was fired by the Board of Directors after he had just got to know success with Apple. Jobs went on to set up NeXT which was later acquired by Apple. Eventually, he returned to Apple serving as a great example of overcoming failure.
The IBM 7030, the ‘Stretch’ computer was delivered in 1961 as the fastest computer in the world. Although a huge accomplishment for its time, the computer was labeled as a failure since it didn’t manage to be 100 times faster than the system it was meant to replace, but only 30-40 times faster.
Post-it notes were discovered by accident after what was meant to be a strong adhesive proved out really weak, hence very easy to peel off surfaces. This then got applied to paper getting us to our beloved little piece of adhesive paper to use on Kanban boards.
Wikipedia features an entry with a whole list of failed and over budget software projects. To name just a few of them: TAURUS - the electronic trading platform, the Expeditionary Combat Support System, BBC’s Digital Media Initiative.
Don’t be afraid of failure, because you will encounter it sooner or later. Instead, ‘fail fast’, inspect and adapt. ‘Failing at failing’ can otherwise lead to project delays and even cancellations, cost overruns, inability to deliver requested products and services, and customer dissatisfaction.