Failing to Fail
24 August 2017
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There is enormous pressure placed upon all of us to succeed. After all, companies are built on success. At some point, success must outweigh failure and result in revenue and profit. But it is foolish and destructive to believe that success is guaranteed and that failure can be avoided completely. It is even counterproductive to focus excessively on success without acknowledging and taking advantage of the inevitable failures. The truth of failure is valuable as organizations gather knowledge and learn from mistakes. In some cases, that knowledge can even be more valuable than the prescribed success.
A culture where success must be achieved at all costs results in redefining success at the cost of truth. The first casualty is data. Truth, as reflected by data, will show the good and the bad. Those who desire constant success will begin by arguing that the data is inaccurate and end with simply ignoring it. Once data is ignored, even the successes are hard to prove and must be declared by experts. Arguments are made based on opinion and anecdote. Worse, they may be defined by position. Force of will makes something true.
The second casualty to go is vigorous discussion and debate. Without that, there is a drop in employee engagement. In that situation, how do we achieve success when the outcome is so nebulous? Success is nothing more than an opinion that is tough to predict.
Finally comes the decrease of knowledge. Groups that never identify failures and mistakes cannot learn from them. Every “success” reinforces current behavior and entrenches beliefs resulting in static growth and decreased innovation. The Agile principle of responding to change is replaced with overlaying our potentially false perception upon an ever-changing landscape of fact. The focus is on trying to change our surroundings rather than changing ourselves based on surroundings.
How do we recognize that this is our organization? There is a simple litmus test. Does your group change its behavior? If so, the members are learning from failure based on reality and truth. If not, then they may have an overt success-oriented culture. Changing behavior is a direct response to learning from mistakes.
For example, in Scrum, does your team use lost velocity points to truly examine the facts and what they can do to influence their surroundings? Or do they argue about the points, or fail to observe trends in their velocity because they feel bad about it? Or do they use the trend to truly become introspective? What data is used to prove success? Are kaizens discovered?
Improvements derived from failure are valuable tools for any organization. Failing to fail is a failure in and of itself. Unfortunately, it’s worse than merely failing to succeed, because it doesn’t drive improvement.
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