Why are we so uncomfortable with failure?
People are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of failing. Almost every time I mess something up, you can trace it back to fear of failure – tackling that is my biggest challenge.
Every time I write a post about the crucial role that failure plays in innovation, I get comments that say things like “tell the families of trainee pilots that failure is good.” But here’s the thing: failure is especially important when we are doing important things where there is no margin for failure.
How can this be?
Clay Shirky has written an excellent piece about the problems with the launch of the healthcare.gov website. In it, he says:
The sinking feeling that all would not be well started with this disillusioning paragraph about what had happened when a staff member at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the department responsible for Healthcare.gov, warned about difficulties with the site back in March. In response, his superiors told him…
[…] in effect, that failure was not an option, according to people who have spoken with him. Nor was rolling out the system in stages or on a smaller scale, as companies like Google typically do so that problems can more easily and quietly be fixed. Former government officials say the White House, which was calling the shots, feared that any backtracking would further embolden Republican critics who were trying to repeal the health care law.
The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.
Failure is always an option. Engineers work as hard as they do because they understand the risk of failure. And for anything it might have meant in its screenplay version, here that sentiment means the opposite; the unnamed executives were saying “Addressing the possibility of failure is not an option.”
As always, the entire post is worth reading.
How to use prototyping to avoid large failures
Think about the bit there about NASA. In order to make manned space flight safe, the only way to do it was to fail repeatedly with un-manned flights.
It’s the same when we train doctors – the only way to make them safe as surgeons is to have them fail repeatedly practicing on cadavers and simulators. The only way to make pilots safe to fly is to have them fail repeatedly in simulators.
The critical step is not avoiding failure, but rather to build failure into the system when the price you pay for it is very low. The system that Shirky is describing is the Build-Measure-Learn loop. It is based on prototyping, and it works really well when you’re building software.
It’s easy to see how to prototype a product. And Build-Measure-Learn explains prototyping for software. But you can prototype anything. My colleagues Mark Dodgson, David Gann and Ammon Salter wrote an excellent paper describing the development of a new way of doing things – using elevators to better enable the evacuation of buildings.
This was done through prototyping. A team of fire engineers at Arup in London spent years running 1000s of simulations of building evacuations using elevators in order to figure out how to make this approach work. Each one was a prototype. They eventually used the simulations to work with regulators get this new approach approved. The reason they ran so many simulations (and failed so many times) is that when an emergency strikes in a very large building that requires evacuation, the system must work.
They have used many small prototyping failures to try to avoid a catastrophic failure in a mission critical system.
You can prototype services too. Here is an example of a prototype of a new pharmacy layout that IDEO made out of foamcore when they were working with Walgreen’s:
They used this to test the layout, to see what worked and what didn’t. This was a much less expensive way to fail than trialling it in an actual pharmacy.
Failure must always be an option. The key is to figure out how to fail in the lowest-cost way possible. Now that we have sophisticated simulation techniques available, it has become much less expensive to test out new ways of doing things.
If we’re smart, we’ll use these tools to fail even more, faster and cheaper. It’s the best way to reduce the chances that we’ll fail massively and expensively. The best way to do fail that way, is to pretend that failure isn’t an option.
But failure is always an option. The good news is that to some extent, you get to choose. Small and cheap, or massive and expensive. Which would you prefer?