Thursday, 8 November 2012

Failure is an option...

One of the worst sayings I've heard recently is "...are we an 'Ameri-can' or an 'Ameri-can't'?" But reflecting on the spirit, and having reflected in my previous blog on "Being a Brit in the US" I've come to accept these truisms as part of the culture I'm now part of - however macho I find them.

The point that the author is trying to make here is a philosophical view that my current client company innately accepts that that progress is measured only by successful conclusions. "You're only as successful as your last project" is a common comment I hear in my adopted home.  KPIs, Performance Measurement and Capability are
measured, not by what I have learnt but by what I have delivered.  "Failure isn't an option" has now reached the point of a religion in American project management and I suspect in the UK as well.

But is it true?  Looking back over the last 20 years I can honestly say that I've learnt more from my failures than from my successes.  Every mistake I've added to my virtual "book of experience" in my head to make sure I don't make the same error a second time.  

It reminds me of a story about Thomas Edison...

Edison tried two thousand different materials in search of a filament for the light bulb.
When none worked satisfactorily, his assistant complained, “All our work is in vain. We have learned nothing.” 
Edison replied very confidently, “Oh, we have come a long way and we have learned a lot. We know that there are two thousand elements which we cannot use to make a good light bulb”
One of the most forgotten parts of Agile, and something that was oddly omitted from the manifesto, is the primary ability to "fail fast".  By failing quickly, and recognizing that failure and developing solutions that overcome it, we are able to avoid costly implementations of ideas that simply won't work.  
Agile is about failing to deliver what we expected but learning and developing better ideas quickly.  Constant learning, especially though the retrospective, is critical to effective Agile implementations.  Al Franken's quotation makes my point:
Mistakes are a part of being human. Appreciate your mistakes for what they are: precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it's a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from  - Al Franken 2002
So this week we've started the new Agile approach to software delivery.  To illustrate the point, and to improve the way that we work, I've started with the Executive Committee (for EC read really important people who run the company) and performed our first retrospective on the way they initiate and support projects.
Interestingly they immediately came to the conclusion that we needed better processes, people, capabilities, systems and attitudes to delivery.  From the review of how projects were going in the organization it was clear who was to blame for project failures... anyone but the Executive Committee.  Indeed, apparently the only way that we could be better than our competition was to ruthlessly eliminate failure and hold accountable those who made it happen - or at least got caught making it happen!
On that we disagreed.  Aristotle noted that:
It is possible to fail in many ways...while to succeed is possible only in one way.
Successful organizations are those that can recognize that failure is a critical part of innovation and ultimately of success.  You must fail many times to find the one way to deliver success effectively. While going through this process you will fail many times but the true measure of a company's ability to respond to the market place and survive is their ability to quickly change direction and investigate many options on find the best possible solution.  Truly successful organizations have recognized that the ability to fail fast, change direction and respond to market demands is the only way to true commercial success. Examples include Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

Fortunately my clients are now mature enough to agree to take the time to discuss my point, review case studies of their behavior and then work to create an action plan that I really think will move us forward on our Agile journey.  More importantly the communications that followed the meeting stated that they accepted that "failure was a necessity that was the true mother of invention"

Will they stick to that philosophy?  Only the next few months will tell - but I know that my retrospectives, agile start-ups and discussions with the business will be a little bit easier over the coming days.  I just hope that we can demonstrate the point before our leadership team loses faith in the epiphany they've just had.



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