How Do You View Failure?

michael_jordan_failure_quote My sister graduated from college this past weekend.  On the night before her graduation, we had a discussion around her time at college and the future.  During the conversation, she said “but I don’t want to fail.”

I have heard many people say these things in the past, and I was one of them.  Once upon a time, I viewed failure as a bad thing.  As a result, I let this mindset control me and it held me back.

Along the way, my mindset shifted.  I realized that failure is not a bad thing, but a necessary thing.  History has many examples of people who have failed along the way, but were overwhelming successful.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that this was the way my father taught me many things in my life.  He worked in construction and when I was younger I often found myself on the job site with him.  He would tell me to do something, like wire up a light switch, but not tell me how. I would spend a half hour trying to get it to work with no luck.  He would then guide me and help me understand where the problem could be.  In doing this, I was failing and used that failure to understand why and in the end succeed.  I learned that failing not only was a part of doing something new, but a necessary part of the learning process.

A few years ago, I started a consulting business with a friend Steve.  I was excited and determined to make it a success.  After two years of slow progress, I decided that it was no longer right for me and sold my half of the company to Steve.  It was a difficult decision, but in reflection, I learned so much from that venture.  I now have taken many of those lessons and applied them to my other businesses.

When I work on large projects, the general mindset from people involved is to do lots of planning to avoid failure.  My approach is to do minimal planning to understand the goal and high level concepts, then start working incrementally, focusing on risk and ambiguity.  This allows me to fail quickly (if needed) and dive into ambiguity.  To me, seeing the result (and failing in the process) is much more beneficial than trying to over-plan as to avoid failure.

When I start working with a new agile team, I will guide them, but generally allow them to do their own thing during the first sprint.  This more often than not leads to a failed sprint, with the team either committing to too much work, not properly breaking it down or a variety of other causes.  Then at the end of the sprint in the retrospective, I help guide the team to identify the failure, why it happened and how we can improve.

So they takeaway from this is that failure is a part of life.  The key is not to avoid failure, but accept it.  Determine how you can fail fast, reflect on why you failed and learn from it.  Then pick yourself up and continue towards your goal.


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