Where is Your Failure Report?

Engineers Without Borders logoIf your organization is populated by perfect people with a perfect track record, feel free to ignore this post. For the rest of you, I’d urge you to spend a little time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. This nonprofit was founded in 2000 by two young engineers who had “a dream of an organization that would enable engineers to contribute something other than another bridge or another electrical grid.” Since then, the organization has built its fair share of wells in Africa, but it has also moved beyond those projects to tackle some really big ideas:

Some are social enterprises that bring affordable financing the rural entrepreneurs. Some improve African government service-delivery and decision-making. And some mobilize Canadians and engineers to create change in areas like ethical consumption. All challenge the status quo and provide radical alternatives to unjust systems.

One key to the organization’s growth and success has been failure. Or, more precisely, it’s gutsy approach to failure. These engineers understood early on that they couldn’t move forward if they did not learn from both their own experience and the experiences of others. A critical part of this was learning from failure. But how can one do this when few people own up to their failures? To address this, Engineers Without Borders Canada set out to create a new learning and innovation culture in which disclosing, discussing and even celebrating failure would not only be possible but, in fact, be expected. While a conversation behind closed doors might be tempting from a risk and reputation management perspective, Engineers Without Borders Canada puts its money where its mouth is: this organization discloses its failures publicly. Since 2008, the organization has published an annual Failure Report that contains “strong reflections on misaligned expectations, misplaced intentions, and incorrect assumptions.”  That’s right — they put it out there for the entire world to see.  They put it out there for their donors to see. Talk about transparency and accountability.

So why should any of this matter to someone working in a professional services firm or other for-profit business? If your organization is serious about innovation and improved performance, it has to confront the results of experiments gone wrong. And, it has to do so in a culture that supports learning rather than lynching. Engineers Without Borders Canada seeks to help all organizations build a supportive culture through storytelling. Their aim is to encourage as many organizations as possible to come clean about what’s really going on. Why?

The more stories that are shared, the easier it becomes to share your own. Slowly but surely, failure becomes less of the “F Word,” and a more commonplace, even celebrated vehicle for humility, learning, and innovation.

Striving for Humility is the title of the 2013 Annual Report of Engineers Without Borders Canada. While I don’t expect anyone in a law firm to draft a report with that title, consider what you might write if you told the truth about what’s happening on your watch. What would change if you successfully identified repeatable lessons that could be shared with your colleagues. What if those lessons were incorporated in your organization’s operating procedures? To be clear, this is not about paying lip service to transparency with an occasional after action review or, worse still, a database of lessons learned that no one ever consults. Rather, this is about encouraging attitudes and behaviors that enable us to share knowledge, learn and innovate. It’s about creating an organizational culture that is more honest and, perhaps, a tad more humble.

So in that spirit, I’ll ask again: Where is your failure report?

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My Mistake

I made a mistake yesterday. Although I started with the best of intentions, my error was apparent within minutes. In fact, as soon as my first mouthful hit my digestive track, it was obvious that I had eaten food that was on the verge of spoiling. Unfortunately, by the time my brain processed the bad news, I was a few mouthfuls into my gastric disaster.  I’ve been paying for my error ever since.

Usually, nature provides an excellent early warning system to keep us away from spoiled food.  Bad smells and visual signs of spoilage are clear indicators that we should give up on that food and try something else.  In my case, the food looked fine and didn’t smell bad.  Consequently, I didn’t realize that I was on the road to pain and should turn around immediately.

We’re regularly told that fail fast and often are key to successful Enterprise 2.0 deployments.  Those of us who are trying to do it right look earnestly for signs that our current effort may be in danger of riding off the rails.  We check usage, we seek out anecdotal evidence, we read the tea leaves.  But what if we can’t tell if we need to quit?  What if the signs are ambiguous or, in the case of my bad meal, misleading?

Dion Hinchcliffe, Peter Kretzman and Michael Krigsman have been thinking about the role of failure in IT projects generally and Enterprise 2.0 deployments specifically.  I’ve provided links below to some of their writing, as an amuse-bouche.  However, I’d encourage you to dive into their blogs.  You’ll find lots of learning there.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the following observations from Peter Kretzman’s blog post, The IT project failure dilemma:  how to get early warnings:

One of the problems, as I’ve pointed out before, is that it can actually be surprisingly difficult to tell, even from the inside, how well a project is going.  Project management documents can be appearing reliably,  milestones met, etc.  Everything looks smooth. Yet, it may be that the project is at increasingly large risk of failure, because you can’t address problems you haven’t identified.  This is particularly so because the umbrella concept of “failure” includes those situations where the system simply won’t be adopted and used by the target group, due to various cultural or communication factors that have little or nothing to do with technology or with those interim project milestones.

Moreover, every project has dark moments, times when things aren’t going well. People get good at shrugging those off, sometimes too good.  Since people involved in a project generally want to succeed, they unintentionally start ignoring warning signs, writing those signs off as normal, insignificant, or misleading.

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Further Reading:

[Photo Credit: stevendepolo]

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How Failure Leads to Epiphany

Jonah Lehrer has written a thought-provoking piece on why we too often miss the great opportunities presented by failure. In Accept Defeat:  The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, he explains how our brains purport to “help” us by screening out information that doesn’t fit with what we believe we know.  Here’s how he describes it:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

Ignoring failure can occasionally be a sanity-preserving, efficiency-enhancing approach to life.  However, when we ignore repeated failure, we may in fact be ignoring the only feasible explanation on the horizon.  Realizing this and acting on it requires strength of mind, openness, and a certain measure of humility.  It requires a true empiricist’s approach to life.

So how do we turn perceived failure around?  How do we find an epiphany amongst the rubble of unwanted test results?  Jonah Lehrer has the the following advice:

Check Your Assumptions: Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out the Ignorant: Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity: If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure-Blindness: It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

When it comes to implementing Enterprise 2.0 tools, there’s no substitute for constant experimentation.  And, there’s no way to avoid disappointments as you struggle to find what works best in your organization.  That said, don’t be too quick to discard your apparent failures.  When viewed with an open mind, they may point the way to success.  By following Jonah Lehrer’s advice, you may be able to find a breakthrough — an Epiphany.

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Here is some additional reading on Failure:

[Hat tip to Dan Pink for pointing out this article.]

[Photo Credit: wenzday01]

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Host a Failure Party

In New York City’s glittering social scene, I’ve never heard of a failure party. Apparently, you have to be on the A-list in Indianapolis to be invited to one.

In 2004, The Wall Street Journal published an article on Eli Lilly’s failure parties. These parties were started in the early 1990s by W. Leigh Thompson, who used them “to commemorate excellent scientific work, done efficiently, that nevertheless resulted in failure.” According to the WSJ,

Lilly has long had a culture that looks at failure as an inevitable part of discovery and encourages scientists to take risks. If a new drug doesn’t work out for its intended use, Lilly scientists are taught to look for new uses for a drug.

As part of this effort, Lilly developed “a formalized and thoughtful process in which it reviewed failures more honestly, more deeply and started the process sooner than anyone else.”  This is a very sensible response to what is reported to be the 90% failure rate for most experimental drugs.

By taking a creative second look at what was originally considered a failure, companies have salvaged their investments and been able to bring profitable innovations to market:

  • Viagra was originally developed to treat angina (severe chest pain).
  • Evista, now a $1 billion- a-year drug for osteoporosis, was a failed contraceptive.
  • Strattera, a drug for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, was first conceived as an antidepressant.
  • Post-It Notes were intended to be an improvement on adhesive tape and ended up creating an entirely new product line.
  • Scotchgard was created for airplane fuel lines, but was re-purposed as a stain repellent.

Have you gone back to see where a well-conceived project went off the rails?  Can it be re-imagined for another useful purpose?  Innovation isn’t just about that initial brilliant idea.  Sometimes, it’s about a brilliant comeback plan.

[Hat tip to Matthew Cornell for forwarding an article on learning that mentioned Failure Parties.]

[Photo Credit:  frippy]

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Do You Need a Failure Target?

We know that failure is necessary for innovation.  In fact, experience shows that repeated failure usually precedes a major breakthrough.  So then, why do we constantly run from failure when we should be planning for it?  According to Scott Anthony, it’s because the cost of failure is perceived to be so high that we don’t believe we can afford it.  As a result, most of us focus hard on trying to ensure complete success even though we know that in most cases this is impossible without some preliminary failures.  Unfortunately, when you’re caught in the bind of trying to avoid failure at all costs, all you really manage to avoid is innovation.

If you’re serious about innovation, you should consider an alternative approach:

Make Failure Cheap. Give up the old method of creating do-or-die projects in which you tightly control development, foreclose alternative approaches, roll-out a fully-baked product and then hope it works.  Instead, institute a series of small experiments beginning early in the life of the project and allow the results of those experiments to determine the course of your project.  These experiments are not intended to be earth-shattering, but they are intended to provide a controlled means by which to test a concept or approach before too much has been committed.  In other words, these experiments come fast and cheap.

Make Failure Safe. Create a culture in which failure is not only accepted but welcomed, provided that it leads to learning.  And conduct your experiments in a manner that minimizes the collateral damage of failure.  Taken together, this organizational culture and controlled experimentation constitute a “safe-fail” approach to innovation.

Make Failure A Goal. The idea behind this is not to promote sub-par performance, but rather, to institutionalize an attitude of deliberate, calibrated risk-taking for the sake of learning and innovation.  Since this fundamentally different approach won’t be adopted without endorsement at the highest levels, consider having management set annual Failure Targets.  Scott Anthony suggests including in each employee’s annual review an evaluation of whether they met their Failure Target by achieving deliberate low-risk failures designed to promote innovation.  When employees are rewarded rather than castigated for taking sensible risks, you move closer to creating a culture that truly fosters innovation.

So, how high a Failure Target do you dare to set?

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When Failure is Fine

Every so often, we’re fortunate enough to hear about an organization that has mastered the art of innovation. In the arena of social media, Best Buy is getting a reputation for innovation and success. This week I learned about an extraordinary feature of Best Buy’s corporate culture when I read Cam Gross’ blog post regarding their implementation of Mix, which he described as “a start-up offering a mashup of email, SMS and Twitter-like functionality. ” When I wrote about Mix in an earlier post, I was impressed by their repeated attempts to broaden the conversation among Best Buy’s employees. Given their success with Blue Shirt Nation, I assumed that they ultimately would be successful with Mix. (Blame the lawyer in me for relying excessively on precedent.) What I didn’t fully understand was that, apart from their prior achievements, they had one of the most critical ingredients necessary for success. Here’s how Cam Gross describes it:

We have had almost zero conversation about Mix outside of the development group. When the article by Laura Fitton (@Pistachio) came out … word traveled inside Best Buy Corporate. A couple of departments have already raised their hands anxious to test/sample Mix. You just can’t beat having an environment where people want to try and are OK with “fail” as long as something is learned. [emphasis added]

Now, be honest. When was the last time you heard someone say that about your company?

We talked earlier about the value of mistakes when pursuing growth and innovation, and Dave Snowden has included in his Seven KM Principles the truth that we learn more from failure than from success. But have we ever gone so far as to say in our workplaces that it’s okay to fail as long as something is learned? Rather, don’t we circumscribe our actions and ambitions in order to avoid failure at all cost? Admittedly, if we do find ourselves staring failure in the eye, we’re usually willing to attempt to redeem that failure by looking for a nugget of learning. But I’d suggest that the Best Buy attitude goes further than that. It sounds like they don’t circumscribe actions and ambitions for fear of failure, but rather choose to risk doing something new — knowing that they can learn from it. With that orientation to innovation, they are bound to succeed.

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