Last week I was invited to participate in a “Fail off” — an event designed to embolden potential entrepreneurs and show them how to start up a company based on their own ideas. The content included a bunch of business owners (including me) going up on stage and publicly divulging their worst failure(s) in gory detail. There were more than 200 people in the audience and as I spoke about my many failures, flops and false starts, I was thrilled to see that people finally see that failure is the very first step on the path to success. Failure creates change. It creates drive and emotion. It is often the only thing that sparks creativity.
Technology thrives on a build-launch-and-measure mentality. We don’t really know what will happen after we bring a product to market or which parts of our product will be the most interesting to users. That means we quantify and detail our failures in black and white in order to correct them. Often there are charts to show how we have failed continuously over time. Awesome.
By staring at failure, looking at it from different angles, and discussing it every day with your team, an amazing thing starts to happen: Failure becomes a tool. Once we stop cringing at the concept of failure and the word’s emotional charge is gone from our psyche, we can actually start getting into productive work. Instead of failing, we refine.
Successful technical managers have the ability to unplug the part of their brain that gets super mad about things. Each member of their team has the ability to decimate months of effort with a few sloppy keystrokes, and if this happens the manager must be able to comfort the team member, identify the failure to prevent repetition, and then move on.
Similarly, a technical fail can be a software product that functions flawlessly, but does not follow the rules of user behavior. These failures are actually worse than a keystroke fail, and harder to spot because they only show up in metrics or user comments. And the corrective action can take weeks or months to implement.
However, once these failures are recognized, documented and corrected, the final product is far better than it would have been without the fail. So why focus on the fail when you can focus on the new success that’s right around the corner?
My point here is that it’s pointless to try to avoid failure. It will happen to everyone a bunch of times in their careers, so let’s take the stigma out of the word and call it a tool for success. Arguably, the biggest failures in the world have been caused by inactivity instead of by error. Think where our country would be if we all worked really hard, tried a lot of stuff, and kept going even if our ideas didn’t pan out the first few hundred times.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? I’ll go first.
Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.