Leadership and Failure

How Do People Learn?

There’s ample debate about whether people learn from mistakes. Don’t believe me? Search and see for yourself. There are compelling arguments for  both learning from our mistakes and not learning from them.

In engineering and software, I think we learn from our mistakes. I can hear you thinking, “Why do you think that, Andy?” I’m glad you asked.

I think we learn from our mistakes because most of what we attempt fails. We live and breathe in a profession where failure is normal. As we grow and mature and improve as technologists, many come to divorce negative emotions from failure. That’s one trait I look for in enterprise architects – a question I seek to ascertain: Have they separated failure from negative emotions about failure? Here’s something I’ve learned:

Good architects not only don’t feel bad when they fail, they embrace failure.

“That’s crazy talk, Andy!”

Perhaps. It’s also accurate. Why in the world would anyone embrace failure? If one believes failure is a necessary step on the path to success, one embraces failure.

Communicating Failure

In a universe that embraces S.M.A.R.T. goals, recording and reporting failure can be tricksy. I’ve written before about a very successful day of software development, but recording it against my performance metric of “lines of code written” backfired when the answer was -1,800.

In software, I believe we simply must learn from our mistakes. Failing fast is virtuous, and failing often is normal. If what we are doing is normal and virtuous, why then should we feel bad about it? The answer is:

We shouldn’t feel bad about failure.

Classification of Failures

What I am advocating is divorcing emotion from technical failures which are a certain class of failures.

I wrote earlier about offending people. We should feel bad about failing by offending people most of the time (I included one exception there at the end of my long, rambling post…).

So I will modify my earlier statement:

We shouldn’t feel bad about technical failures.

Conclusion

See what I did there?

I failed to communicate clearly and effectively.
I tried again, adding clarification.

Do I feel bad about that? Nope.
Neither should you.

Peace.

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