Failure is an option

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

Failure. For most it rings a chord of fear, self-doubt and something that absolutely paralyzes many of us to think about. We, of course,  have been conditioned to regard failure is a really bad thing. Failed class, failed marriage, failed product. All of that just sounds bad, right?

But what if I said, failure is a learning opportunity and not the final nail tap on the coffin we have all been taught it might be? What if failure could be a good thing? Failure innately unto itself can have a myriad of bad consequences, I will admit. But once we have allowed ourselves to indulge in mourning the situation ay hand, do we ever start to think it might could help us succeed?

I’ll failed numerous times in life. And though I have not emerged as a captain of industry as a result of these failures, I can honestly say that I have always learned something (even if it was to stop doing the thing that lead to the failure) and in many cases found something better than I initially had sought.  Does that mean that I have achieved some zen-like enlightenment from every failure in life. Of course not. I just do my best to examine why I failed as best as I can.

Some mistakes I continue to make, as we all do, trying to scrunch my face up just right to fit that round peg in the square hole or allow just enough body adjustment to magically make the video game character make that jump or rewriting that line of code the exact same way using different variables only to have it not compile again. Failure is a part of living and always the potential outcome from any of our actions but it can also be seen as a potential to learn. I actually feel that I am in great company with a good deal of people who have failed prior to any success:

  1. Thomas Edison invented thousands (potentially tens of thousands) of lightbulbs before he invented one that actually worked.
  2. Winston Churchill failed the 6th grade and also failed to be elected to any public office prior to age 62 when he was made prime minister.
  3. Walt Disney was fired from an early newspaper job for “having no imagination and had no good ideas”.
  4. Sir Andrew Dyson went through over 5,000 prototypes and his life savings over 15 years. His 5,127th prototype worked and Dyson vacuum cleaners  are now the best selling in America.

With each person listed here, a pretty substantial failure preceeded each before achieving success. Some may attribute these to luck or these being anomalies so let me discuss a personal failure that I used as a learning mechanism. I think tend to believe that these failures provided necessary feedback and the recipients were open to hear the right message.


When myself and the product owner of our first scrum team did a demo of the skunkworks project we were loosely sanctioned to build for to the commissioner of our agency, it was … awful.

He beat us up with the proverbial “baseball bat”. He told us all the things we had done wrong about this product. Many of the executives that sought to make this their “personal win” with him tried to defend the product choices or redirect criticisms with no real luck. So, what did the product owner and I do?  We listened. We took notes. We sought to understand. After giving us a good thrashing of critique, he exited the conference room and said “but you guys are on track with something” …

Once he and his staff had left, we received a good deal of unsolicited apologies from those who scheduled  the meeting. I looked at my product owner and he looked at me and I said “that was great”! The remaining folks in the room seemed confused. What they did not initially get was that we made assumptions, now proved inaccurate. We failed fast. It worked. We learned what one of our primary stakeholders cared about and we could adapt and adjust our approach. It was a really good thing.

This helped me realize that all of that critique of what we had done wrong, our failure, helped us better understand and learn. We actually learned something from failing. We took this feedback and within the next sprint cycle we demoed the new product. This time, we got a lot of positive directional feedback of how to proceed. We refined the product into a tool used by the business to help them do things better and have more insight into information. Taking that  failure, listening and examining the feedback helped us begin to change an organization.

Sounds simple, right? Just fail and then learn from it. I wish it was that simple. Failure is only helpful for us if coupled with the willingness to learn the lesson, and by that I mean the right lesson. We could have easily translated our first experience into the idea that scrum would not work for us, “the customer is always wrong” or joined into a pity party over the criticism or just gotten angry that no one praised our hard work. But what we did was hear the message behind the comments of failure (that we were in fact wrong in our guesswork) and were able to exploit it for future success of the product.

Think back in your life about a time you failed, what message did you hear? Was it the right message?

Am I done failing? Nope. I would love to say I am but I think that would be a bad bet to make. Will I always hear the right message and learn to build it into a success? I hope so. But the most important thing is am I willing to fail and open to the message it might bring? Absolutely.

I leave you with a quote I have always enjoyed regarding failures:

“Just because something does not do what you planned, does not make it useless” – Henry Ford





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