Failure IS an Option

7 February 2012

Chia Wei Cheng
E2open Development

This is an article asking you to fail. More precisely: Fail now for greater success later.

One of the five Scrum values is courage. Courage to point out problems, ask for help, receive help, and — most important — take risks even though you know you might fail. In fact, short-term failure is common to Agile's "inspect and adapt" practice. We all know that once we inspect and adapt a new practice, there's a high chance the practice still won't work as desired, and then we'll drop it and seek a better approach.

Ironically, past glories may lower our ability to achieve further success, because we're fearful that any potential failure will overshadow that previous success. For example, a high-performing team may be reluctant to adopt TDD (test-driven development), worrying that if TDD doesn't work well right at the beginning, others may believe that the team's performance is no longer as good as it used to be.

While it's human nature to fear failure, it is not impossible to overcome this fear. Instead of magnifying the bad consequences of a failure, we can balance it by understanding its benefits — which are often educational. The educational benefits from a minor failure can far outweigh the losses; if we assess the situation correctly, we'll accumulate experience and knowledge.

Here's a well-documented example: In 2000, Virgin Atlantic Airways attempted to introduce "sleep seats" in business class. However, within a year its $67 million investment was outclassed by British Airways' business-class "flat bed." Virgin's project was widely acknowledged as unsuccessful; the company admitted its product was not as good as its competitors'. It took a hard look at its own product versus what worked better. And then Virgin continued to work on seat design. It invested another $127 million to launch, in 2003, new "upper-class suite" seats that could be converted into better "beds" — not merely flat but also more comfortable. This product has been a success and has improved Virgin's business-class market share by more than 1%. (For more, see Bloomberg Businessweek, July 10, 2006.)

This story demonstrates that although a great idea may not be successful on its first attempt, giving up too quickly after the initial failure, missing the opportunity to analyze and learn from the experience, means we'll never achieve the success the idea deserves.

Using the skills of the entire team is important, too. If you're a programmer, step forward to help automate testing, even though you know you may break the build. If you're an analyst, don't be afraid to help code, even though you may need to ask basic questions of junior developers. Cross-functional teamwork is a key element of a successful Agile team. But a cross-functional team won't be formed overnight, without individuals who take brave steps to break through the barriers of their own expertise areas.

The fear of failure is perhaps the strongest force holding a team below its performance potential. People fear failure, especially its consequences. Too many organizations have culture of perfection, a belief that any failure is unacceptable. If your organization is one of them, applying a performance culture that mechanically measures failures without considering how the company can learn from a failure and come back stronger, do what you can to change this attitude. Agile won't work if we have failure-phobic teams. According to Mike Cohn's Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum (p. 212): "One of the best ways to learn is to try something, make a mistake, and then do it a better way. Other ways to learn include asking questions and engaging in debate. If someone doesn't feel safe doing these things, they won't. Product owners, ScrumMasters, functional managers, and others must find ways to create a feeling of safety around these activities; otherwise, team members will not risk trying new things for fear of failing, looking stupid, or suffering similar repercussions."

In other words, it's as important to create a "fail-safe" environment as it is to establish a reward-by-performance culture in an organization — probably more important, in fact. A true low performer is someone who doesn't take the first step to innovate, not the pioneer who has the courage to fail — with the belief that he or she will be successful eventually. We need to create an environment in which everyone can fail wisely in order to achieve greater success.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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Don Kim, PMP, CSM, PMI-ACP, CSM, 2/8/2012 1:30:07 AM
I like this article and think the important part was in the last paragraph of your article that states "we need to create an environment in which everyone can fail wisely in order to achieve greater success". That's the key to create an environment that allows people to fail for the right reasons.
Chia Wei Cheng, CSM, 2/8/2012 5:23:38 AM
Thanks Don. Glad that you like this.
'Result oriented' is often the buzzword in most of the organization today. As a leader, we need to visionaire long term result rather than make judgement based on one or two single occasions failure resulted from an initial breakthrough step.
Elton Gao, CSP,CSM, 2/12/2012 11:03:16 AM
I think for many organizations it's quite difficult to buy it.But I indeed agree on this "Fail now for greater success later".It's critical for an organization if it wants to be extraordinary.
Gagan Rana, CSM,CSPO, 2/18/2012 7:09:09 PM
This is a nice article which highlights two Scrum core values - Courage and Respect. Honestly there are few businesses out there, who can afford to fail (even small projects) and give chance to individuals who failed. Providing a safe place is an ideal sort of environment and hopefully business will learn this sooner.
Manish Gupta, CSM, 3/9/2012 3:15:56 AM
I agree. Agile will work only if Team has courage enough to report its failure and motivation/environment to win over its failures.

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