image image 22nd July 2021

You Are Paid To Fail

Failing is not the opposite of success.

Inspired by an advert on the radio while driving home, I started writing a post about failure. The advert, produced by the British Army, focused on the process but I want to explore the culture of failure, and how to benefit from embracing it within your own organisation.

I was prompted to finish this post following the events of the UEFA EURO Final. An amazing effort, by two teams that have many successes to come.

If you haven’t heard the advert by the British Army, it starts with a simple message: You are paid to fail. I tried to find the source for the ad, but the closest I could find was a variation on the same theme.

The ad then moves on the describe the process for failure. You fail, you learn, you win. A simple formula really. So why don’t more organisations adopt the same approach?

You fail, you learn, you fail some more, you learn some more, you win (when it matters) – The British Army

To learn from failure, you need to be able to accept it, embrace it and even celebrate it. Lots have already been written on failing fast, Google and Spotify immediately spring to mind as two leading authorities on integrating failure into the development lifecycle.

But how do more humble organisations use failure to improve?

As with most things in software development, it is really all about people. People make mistakes, and the more you embrace those mistakes, discuss, and examine them, the better the code/culture/company. So, it is important to bring failure into your day-to-day discussions. But do not forget, failure without learning is just bad work. If you examine failure and take nothing away from it, then you do not deserve to win.

How many times have you watched a company describe its success?

It’s human nature to want to tell people about success. Winning and succeeding bring people together and create emotional connections between colleagues and teams. This does not mean that success is the opposite of failure. It does not mean that you should not disregard the failed attempts needed to reach success.

Challenge yourself the next time you are asked to describe success, start by talking about all the things that went wrong first. and then talk about all the things you learned after that. Make it normal to start with failure.

“Failing is not the opposite of success” – Spotify

When it comes to delivery, it is easy to focus on the happy path: “Our team just smashed a project delivering thingy A built-in popular tech stack Z, on time and under budget!”.

Oh really? how many thingies did it take to get to A?

Well, 7 actually.

And why did you use tech stack Z?

Well X and Y did not work when we tried them first.

That interesting, I wish you had told me about all that learning that took place.

To summarise: It’s easy to ignore failure, just as it’s easy to create a culture that only rewards success. But in reality, failure is part of the journey to success. You cannot learn something new without failure, and you cannot win a major football tournament until you have learnt something about who your team is, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.

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