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Failing for Success

Failing never feels good because, well, it feels like failure. Nobody wants to fail. We are driven to be number 1, top dog and the big winner. Nobody has ever said, “Wow! That’s awesome! You failed!” The black and white checkered flag falls, and the winner is ordained. The fear of failure is so strong and painful that it’s amazing how far we will go to avoid it. Fleeing, running, hiding, or avoiding it all together.

We put ourselves into a make-believe world where no mistakes can be made, and we overwork ourselves to the point of exhaustion all in the name of ‘not failing.’ We keep ourselves deluded in the belief that failure isn’t an option, and we are at a loss on how to handle failure.

Being fearful of failure, we create elaborate plans to avoid it but it happens anyway. Systems, processes and people just don’t operate with 100% accuracy. If everything ran perfectly every time, we certainly wouldn’t need a helpdesk or second level support.

But failure isn’t as evil as we make it out to be. How did you learn to walk? You certainly just didn’t jump to your feet and start running a marathon. It took lots of trial and error to learn how to put one foot in front of the other to propel yourself forward. Even crawling took some trial and error! After we get on our feet, we forget that in order to get there, we fell, toppled, and wobbled our way to success. There wasn’t a surefire way to learn to walk. We had to fail in order to learn.

Related Article: Avoid These Phrases – Or Your Project Will Fail

Experimental learning has taught us that failure is the best way to learn. Remember back to the days you first started to learn something new like riding a bike. You didn’t do it perfectly the first time and probably fell a few times. Someone was there to pick you up off the ground and put you back on the bike. You learned by failure – that leaning too far one way or another will cause you to fall off the bike.

The last thing I learned was my home thermostat. It connects to the internet and allows me to control the temperature and fan from anywhere. After successfully setting up the thermostat, I started to play around with it. I failed multiple times trying to figure out some of the features. At one point I simply wiped it clean and started over. In learning how to fix the things, I also figured out some cool new ways I could save energy and use it better. I experimented, failed, and learned.

An interesting experiment was performed by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz a few years ago for the book “Fail Fast, Fail Often”. This experiment was simple. A group of students was divided into 2 groups. The first group was told, “You have 90 days to create was many clay pots as you can.” This first group or “Volume Group” was told to focus on volume and forget about quality. The other group was told, “You need to make one perfect clay pot.” The second group was the “Quality Group” and was focused entirely on quality and avoided any kind of volume. Both teams were told they were in a contest to see who could make the best looking and functional clay pot.

You would expect that the group focused entirely on the quality of clay pot would have the most well-designed pot because they were entirely focused on the design. Since the volume group was focused so heavily on just making pot after pot, odds are none of their pots would be that well designed.

At the end of the 90 days, both teams put all their pots out for judgment by a panel of clay pot artists and experts. I’m don’t know who these people are, but I will say they have one incredible niche job for judging just clay pottery. Can you even make money at that?

The surprising result was that the volume team that just made as many clay pots as they could won the competition. How is that even possible? Why did volume win out over quality?

The quality team has so focused on quality and creating the perfect design that they didn’t take any time to experiment or play with the clay. The volume team, on the other hand, interacted with the clay constantly. The first few clay pots produced by the volume team were damn ugly, but they continued to play and experiment. The volume team while trying to achieve a greater volume of clay pots actually learned more about creating clay pots and were more comfortable with the clay. So even though the volume team had a lot of failures, they succeeded and won.

Failure can make you stronger and more agile if you choose to learn from it. “That didn’t work – let’s try something different” attitude. This is the whole concept around failing fast. The faster you fail, the more you learn from that failure. Don’t fail just once, fail multiple times.

Failing safe is about creating an environment where experimentation and learning do not cause injury to yourself or your organization. Like in the experiment, an environment needs to be created in which experimentation can occur with wild abandon safely. No one was harmed in the making of clay pottery.

In the technology world, we use the term “prototyping”. Many prototyping situations in technology are severely limited. The environment is too confined or restrained for experimentation, and often very few failures occur to learn from. A better safe environment in on that this not restricted and open for experimentation.

Playing and changing everything in a production environment where your customer experiences your experiments has a tendency to make your customers unhappy. Build an environment where you can play without consequence. You may have to start over from scratch and rebuild the environment after a wild night of experimentation. Plan on creating a way to rebuild your safe environment quickly so that experimentation isn’t slowed down.

Create other safe and soft landing environments where you can bounce your ideas of others. Maybe your environment isn’t about a physical space or system but a room filled with flip charts and whiteboards.

Pulling together a group of colleagues to idea share, collaborate and innovate creates a safe environment as long as ground rules and expectations are set ahead of time. Set the expectations that experimenting and innovating is the goal. The more ideas, the better. We are not driving for perfection. It’s like a brainstorming meeting on steroids. Encourage crazy ideas and actually try it out. There are no judgments and the wildest crazy ideas are always welcomed.

Another tactic is to experiment with screen or report design by having multiple variations mocked up. The key is not just to focus on one mockup but to have many mockups. This allows the group to “riff” off each other by taking elements of different mockups and combining them together in new exciting ways.

One of my favorite tactics is user experience development and testing space. User experience folks will tell you it’s a preferred tactic to have users just play with your interface (screen or report) and watch how they use it. Gather a group and invite them to play or experiment with a design. The designers in the room are silently watching actual users interact with their design. The designers learn from watching the group play and experiment with the design. Designers then change the interface based on their observations. Rinse and repeat. One session is usually not enough. They key here is not to tell the user how to use the interface but to let them play and experiment freely in a safe environment.

A badass professional can open themselves up to new experiences so they can learn. They understand that failure can happen and work to create safe environments in which to play and experiment. Our culture needs to change the way we see failure. We must start seeing failure as an opportunity to innovate and not as something bad.

To succeed without learning is a failure. There are many instances in my life where I have executed a task perfectly the first time only to fail the second time miserably. Beginners luck can be a curse because you miss the opportunity to learn from failure. Only through failing do we truly learn.

A badass professional is reflective in their failure but not to the point of obsession. Look back and determine if there was a lesson to be learned. What went well? What didn’t go so well? What still baffles me? What if I did something different instead? Then get up off the warm fuzzy safe pillow in your safe environment and try it again. Remember you didn’t learn to walk without falling first.

Take the example of switching jobs. You prepare that killer resume and get in the door for an interview. You did your homework on the company and prepared yourself for the usual interview questions. It seems like everything went well but you didn’t get the job. Learning from failure requires being reflective or thinking about it. This shouldn’t be an all-day marathon conversation going around in your head. Jot down a few things you thought you could do better. Follow-up and get some feedback from the interviewer if you can or a colleague on interviewing better. You failed to get the job, but you succeeded in learning how to do it better next time.

Let’s build a strategy together on how to help your organization fail in a safely and fail faster so they can learn and drive innovative new solutions and approaches.