The Agile Tribe

Agile – what does it really mean? Learning from failure.

on April 11, 2011

Author: Michael Stange

Continuing on the theme from the previous blog by the Agile Coaching community, I thought I would look at how a ‘safe to fail’ environment compares to ‘safe to innovate’ one.

John Lasseter also known as ‘The sorcerer-in-chief of Disney and Pixar’ is the envy of most producers. His perfect 10-for-10 winning strike rate is a feat unheard of in Hollywood, where a 1-in-10 hit ratio keeps most companies in business.

The key to his success, he claims, is ‘failure’.

“When you think about science, it’s about experimentation, and 99% of the experiments fail, but you learn from the failures and you move on”.

It is also said that Thomas Edison failed thousands of times before he revolutionised the world by inventing and patenting the incandescent light bulb.

For years now, we’ve been trying to create a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment in the Agile world but what do we really mean?

To answer that question, let’s explore two key success factors:

  1. desired behaviours; and
  2. having the right ecosystem is needed for those behaviours to flourish.

The desired behaviours
What is the true behaviour we are promoting, and what is common to the approach that John Lasseter and Thomas Edison have that allowed them to failure so successfully? The answer, I believe is a combination of the following three things:

  1. Thinking creatively,
  2. Experimenting, and
  3. Challenging the norms.

Coincidently, all these three things are also used to describe innovation which requires a long-term perspective and involves experimentation, failure, and time.

We should focus more on encouraging those positive behaviours that, yes, will likely lead to many failures, however, are easier for people to relate to. Let’s ask people to think creatively, experiment and challenge the norm. Let’s encourage innovation as a core principle and focus on positive reinforcement and experimentation.

Now let’s turn our attention to – The right ecosystem

“Failure refers to the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success.” (Wikipedia).

In an Agile environment we want failure and success to be met with the same level of enthusiasm and support. Often though, it feels almost counter intuitive to strive towards an environment that has a negative connotation associated with it. Moreover, we’ve been trying as hard as we can to avoid failure all our lives and see the path of least resistance as the safest option out there.

So rather than the emphasis being on failure, let’s put it on safe by creating a Fail-Safe environment. In such an environment we would actually be designing one to mitigate any unsafe consequences of failure.
But how would we do this and how could we support such an environment? As usual, the answer can be found in keeping to the basics – that is, two of Agile core values:

  • Trust – Empower people to make decisions and trust them implicitly. Allow them to be courageous and experiment without concern for reprisal or failure.
  • Courage – Have the courage to experiment, and stand-up for your core beliefs while accepting that there will be some failures along the journey to success.

An ecosystem built on trust and courage will not only nurture the desired behaviours but will also create a truly safe-to-innovate environment.

In summary, change the emphasis on failure, encourage innovation and creativity and change leadership behaviour to create the ecosystem that’s needed for people so they are not afraid to speak up and try new things.

About the author:  

Michael Stange, is an Agile coach and Coaching Manager at Suncorp. Michael started coaching and developing teams in the defence force in 1994. Since joining the IT industry, he has taken on various roles in both traditional and Agile projects. As a certified Scrum Practitioner, and an advocate of Agile principles and practices for the last eight years, Michael has focused on process improvement in all areas of project delivery. He joined Suncorp in mid 2009 as an Agile Coach, providing guidance to project teams; training and mentoring staff as well as building successful, cross-functional project teams.

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3 responses to “Agile – what does it really mean? Learning from failure.

  1. Renee Troughton says:

    We are going to be having a safe to fail month blog post fest I believe.

    I recently did a post on a very similar topic at
    http://agileforest.com/2011/03/25/safe-to-fail/

    • admin says:

      Nice one Renee. Great blog by the way. It is good to see that some comapnies are prepared to do more than lip service about truly having a ‘safe to fail’ environment.

  2. dorit says:

    Most intersting concept,
    What do you think makes a person a leader.

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