The Success of Failures

December 31, 2011
Once a group of ten blind masseuses were travelling together in the mountains, and when they began to pass along the top of the precipice, they all became very cautious, their legs shook, and they were in general struck with terror. Just then the leading man stumbled and fell off the cliff. Those that were left all wailed, "Ahh, ahh! How piteous!" But the masseuse who had fallen yelled up from below, "Don't be afraid. Although I fell, it was nothing. I am now rather at ease. Before falling I kept thinking 'What will I do when I fall?' and there was no end to my anxiety. But now I've settled down. If the rest of you want to be at ease, fall quickly!"

To err is human. But we often think of mistakes as necessary evils, actions or situations that could have been avoided if we had the foresight. After all, some mistakes can be painful. Yet, I would argue that we learn best from our own mistakes. Even if it's not a conscious thought in our mind, when faced with a similar situation or problem, our intuition can help us navigate around repeating the same mistake twice. If I touch a hot stove once, I'm probably not going to touch it again.

For easier problems, the cause and effect between the mistake and the outcome is readily apparent. But as things get more complicated, it's not always easy to see what the actual mistake was that generated the failure. From a software development perspective, the actual underlying cause can elude us, and everybody can be left drawing their own conclusions as to what happened. We need to be careful here though, because the wrong lesson can guide us down the wrong path in the future. Once we are burnt by a hot stove, we'll never touch a hot stove again. But if we learn the wrong lesson, we may never touch a cold one either.

One interesting idea is that the problem space itself can dictate the strategy used to solve it. When all variables are known, we simply use the answer for our given permutation. However, some problems don't have an easy "if this, do that" answer. For these problems, we can set up fail-safe experiments, where each one is an attempt at a solution from a different angle, but their failures aren't catastrophic. Recovering from the failures is the key here. In fact, many failures initially can lead to a better outcome in the end, because they can each inform the ultimate solution based on what we learned from their failures.

From a business perspective, this can be a hard sell though. How can you justify allocating resources on what you know will mostly end up being a failure? Isn't that just a waste? What we need to admit first is that we may not know enough about the particular problem to be in a position where we can recommend a single solution that has a good chance of success. And the best way to learn more may be to attempt to solve it in multiple ways, many of which will fail. Naturally, nobody wants to hear this kind of news. The immediate reaction could be, "well, let me try to find somebody that knows more about this." But for problems that are relatively new, experts can be hard to come by.

Some will also try to rely on a process to get through the problem. And for known problems, it is a fine approach to rely on best practice. By definition though, best practice is past practice, so we can't expect to have best practice for all situations, especially for new problems that we don't fully understand.

Accepting that failures occur is an important step. Instead of focusing on preventing them completely, we can instead create environments that are more tolerant of our failures. And we shouldn't simply tolerate mistakes, but accept them as an integral part of the process, and how we continue to improve ourselves.

At the time when there was a council concerning the promotion of a certain man, the council members were at the point of deciding that promotion was useless because of the fact that the man had previously been involved in a drunken brawl. But someone said, “If we were to cast aside every man who had made a mistake once, useful men could probably not be come by. A man who makes a mistake once will be considerably more prudent and useful because of his repentance. I feel that he should be promoted.” Someone else then asked, “Will you guarantee him?” The man replied, “Of course I will.” The others asked, “By what will you guarantee him?” And he replied, “I can guarentee him by the fact that he is a man who has erred once. A man who has never once erred is dangerous.” This said, the man was promoted.