On the Importance of Failure

As one of my mentors is fond of reminding me – failure is the best teacher.  As he also reminds me, fail twice at the same task and you’ve got big problems starting with an erosion credibility. Credibility is the single most expensive asset you will ever own, it never appreciates unless you actively grow it and it is exceedingly easy to erode. Look up pride.

But here’s my twist on this (and I can just see you rolling your eyes at this Mr S.) Failure is GOOD for the soul. Sure, not repeated failure, but bear with me for a moment. I’ve had two instances in my professional life where I’ve run what were essentially technology R&D shops. The ‘D’ in my book as always stood for Delivery.  The ‘R’ is where the fun starts, but not everyone can be researching. I’ve always made sure to have at least one person in the research role who consistently fails. It requires vigorous interviewing to find, identify and surface that personality type, especially in technologist types, then mentor, manage and insulate them so they do their best work. I won’t give away any further specifics on how to identify them – but I’ll be happy to consult with you for a fee 🙂

These individuals will fail at the tasks you give them over and over. The tasks are not the routine or mundane ones. They’re the really strange, esoteric complete WTF concepts that no respecting researcher or developer would touch.  They’re the ones that will make this person cringe at the thought and bemoan their fate.  But you’ll feel that secret glee they have and – this is important – set them loose. They have to attack the problem their way. Keep a close eye on them, help them avoid ratholes and painted corners. That’s your job. Their job is to fail.

And learn.

When they fail, the critical important part is to focus on what they learned. And they’ll have to share this with the wider team.  While everyone is talking up accomplishments, this persons accomplishment is what they learned while failing. Without fail their insight has lent itself to the wider team. Sometimes it’s a small value add, sometimes it’s just the insight that was needed for resolving a major barrier.  This is where the patterns of problems and solutions comes into play – something much studied and widely accepted in software development.

Small cost, consistent measurable benefit.

Admittedly it is a risky proposition and it does require greater management investment and commitment.

But hey, you’re still going to learn if you fail at it.

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