The Agile Coach on Failure

March 24, 2014 CollabNet VersionOne

They say the best way to learn is sometimes through failure. I couldn’t agree more.

Now you may be thinking, “Yeah, that sounds nice, but my boss doesn’t like failure And I don’t like getting called on the carpet. The culture in my company doesn’t encourage risk taking. In fact, we get penalized for failing via negative performance reviews.”

Welcome to the culture of command and control; management by fear.

Now don’t get me wrong. I agree that we should try to mitigate risk. But on the other hand, we might not come up with that new groundbreaking technology if we never take a chance, step outside our comfort zone every now and then.

Funny thing; agile both mitigates and encourages risk at the same time.

It mitigates by employing short, 2-week timeboxes; by allowing the customer to see what we’ve built for them at the end of those timeboxes; by having team retrospectives, identifying what we do well and where we can improve; and by practicing agile technical practices.

An agile culture encourages risk taking by making clear that we will never win in the long-term by sticking to the status quo. We must take calculated risks and invest in them. R&D isn’t the only place that spends money on crazy ideas. The IT divisions are becoming increasingly important to a company’s success or failure.

As an Agile Coach, I find one of the hardest things to learn is to let the team fail. Watching and waiting is not an easy thing to do. That said, as a Coach, I’m not going to allow them to make an epic failure that would cost the company millions of dollars. But I do want the team to feel comfortable taking chances and using failures as an opportunity to learn.

If you’re overly protective of your team’s failures, they will recover from failure more slowly, learn less, and become weaker as a team. And, as you might expect, the opposite holds true.

And an epic failure at the end of a long cycle (6, 9, 12 months) is frowned upon even more, as it should be. Accordingly, this is the dig on the waterfall approach to developing software. At the end of the 12-month project, we may think we got it all right. We may have even worked double-time at the end to get there. But when the day comes to go live, we discover that what we created doesn’t work like it should, isn’t quite what the customer asked for 12 months ago, or the market has changed — and this thing we spent so much time creating is no longer valuable.

It’s not uncommon to end up only using 20% of the original requirements list. That’s a pretty large failure risk, if you ask me. Over my 10 years of managing waterfall projects, I’ve had more than a few projects fail in this way. Of course, as the Project Manager, the fingers were usually pointed at me. I loved my job. NOT!

Enter agile development. I made the transition from Project Manager to ScrumMaster very naturally. For some PMs, it’s not a good fit. Hard to shake that command-and-control mentality. But I liked this new and refreshingly realistic way of working and getting stuff done. If we failed in agile, we failed at the 2-week mark, not at 12 months. Simple. Brilliant. The finger pointing ceased. We succeeded or failed as a team. And if we did fail, we got better the next time, or we pivoted and went a different direction. ‘Why hadn’t we all been doing this the past 4 decades,’ I thought to myself. But that’s another blog topic.

Bill Cosby once said, “The desire to succeed must be greater than the fear of failure.” Ruminate on that.

Is your energy focused on succeeding or failing?

 

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