Failure

I believe in fundamentals, and one fundamental you have to keep drilling is that all of the Agile Resistance that you face is rooted in fear. Much of that is fear of failure.

Aversion to risk and failure is baked into company culture after years of hammering home that going over budget and past due is bad. Really Bad. So we build all manner of defences to make sure that doesn’t happen – input from every stakeholder group, exhaustive and formalized validation and signoff procedures, complex cost and benefit estimation schemes, audit and compliance….it feels so natural to seek certainty that it feels impossibly unsafe to say ‘let’s just break stuff’.

There’s a lot of talk about safety in teams. I’m not always sure what kind of safety is being referred to, but I know this – as long as there is a threat of repercussion when things fail, teams will never feel free to break stuff. Which is a tremendous shame, because it is exactly that environment that fosters innovation. It’s like being a little kid. You learned about the world by picking things up, banging, pulling, throwing and biting them. You had to have someone tell you that it’s impolite to break things, otherwise you would have just gone on discovering and innovation forever….wait….why is that bad again?

So when you encounter resistance to failure….I say….’good’. Because now they’re all yours. Shut the door and push them to make some decisions more quickly. To try things without permission. Tell stories about the times you tried, and failed, and everything was OK. And let them know that if they would just have the courage to try in this room, you’ll stand between them and management, soaking up all the blame if you have to, until the team has proven that failure has actually taught them how to be better much faster.

When failures start to accrue, and they always do, make sure you examine it as a team, and remind them that at least now they know what WON’T work. And then pose the question….”Imagine if we had only failed three weeks earlier?”. The sooner you start failing, the sooner you start really learning, and only after you’ve started doing that can you actually hope to be better, faster.

Learning to fail and protecting the team during failures is one of the most important techniques you can use to increase trust, cohesion, and energy in the team room.

Listen to this week’s episode here.

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