Succeed By Failing

07 Jul 2012. comments

How do you define success? I define success as having learned from past failure, which is the only way to grow.

“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day.”

– Carl Sagan

Fearing failure is something that can lead to “everyone is a winner” syndrome. It’s often unpopular for people and organizations to own a failure, so often what you’ll see is everything being treated as a success. If you don’t know or accept that there is a failure you can’t correct against it and you’ll never be able to learn from it.

But isn’t failing expensive? Either monetarily or emotionally? Not if you fail early. The cost of failure rises the longer it continues. And the point isn’t to fail; it’s to understand why the previous thing you did failed and be able to learn from it. If you learn to shorten the cycle time you won’t have a lot invested and you’ll be able to pivot to the better path faster. The cycle time looks like this:

  1. State a goal.
  2. Identify a way to measure against that goal.
  3. Try it, and validate your attempted method of attack with your measurement method.
  4. Failed? Go to 1.
  5. Repeat until you succeed.

Failing early is failing cheaply. Eric Ries has written a book Lean Startup which discusses this and he refers to it as being almost like an automobile engine. With the increasing revolutions of the feedback cycle causing the engine to crank over, at some point the engine really gets going and becomes a sustainable way of operating.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Thomas Edison

“Success is 99% failure”

Soichiro Honda


Tagged: agile software craftsmanship lean software engineering

2019 Ben Lakey

The words here do not reflect those of my employer.