Saturday, April 25, 2009

Why Failure Isn't Working for Me

A response to a number of posts and talks on failure recently, particularly this one by Michael Krigsman, Five Reasons to Discuss Project Failure, linked from Scott Berkun's blog.

Based on Krigsman's points, I wonder, Is failure really instructive? In my observation, there are a lot of people who don't learn from other people, or even hear what they say. Maybe they're "experiential" learners. Maybe they don't think like researchers--who are trained to build on other work--or they aren't smart. I personally hope they are genetic dead-ends. It seems a rare person who takes on board the lessons or advice from others; at least, it takes a listener, and someone who isn't arrogant.

On the subject of arrogance: A lot of organizations suffer from "not invented here" syndrome. They're in successful companies, don't see why they should do anything different, don't think they need to do other than tweak their current environment. And they're unlikely to hear from outsiders or new people. No matter how much they say they embrace change, learning, growth, new ideas... in general, in practice, it's not so true. Or it's better coming from someone internal with an extremely tailored message for that environment.

Do success stories really not work? The fun book Made to Stick doesn't entirely agree. One of my issues with stories of failure is that they end up being a lot like usability test results: Show you everything you did wrong, but provide no solutions for how to fix things. And it's hard to get the "right" lesson, because lessons are almost always hypothetical. IF we hadn't cut this feature, it would have sold better. IF we had done user testing earlier, we would have caught this. IF we'd had longer to develop the right architecture, this would be faster and people wouldn't be complaining about performance. IF IF IF. No one really knows, it's all just opinion.

If you don't understand your successes, you can't replicate them. And you can't use them to inspire anyone. You had a project team that cleaned up a disaster in record time and shipped something people loved. What was different about that team? What did they do better? Okay, it may be partly a comparison with the failure before, but it's surely instructive!

Root cause analysis of failure always has to skirt around sticky, difficult, subjective personality issues. This is often unproductive to discuss, and doesn't lead to positive outcomes. The people who name names look bad, and often suffer for it later. That guy who's the blocker for a zillion projects - everyone hates working with him, but he's critical path. Yes, it's been elevated to his boss before. VPs have been involved. Multiple VPs, on one occasion, during which ego bristles poked everyone. Nothing has changed. That guy is going to continue being a root cause problem on a lot of things. Talking about it means VPs and bosses are implicated too. And isn't it just personality issues for everyone involved? (Note, I advocate firing his ass, or moving him to another role; but I'm not in charge. The organizational dysfunction, which is usually just human nature, is in charge.)

design is invisible, till it fails.

Now, to switch onto on the subject of design failure. A hot topic among design gurus right now (see Spool on "Failure is Not an Option, It's a Requirement" and Scott's recent talk on "Why Designers Fail"), we're being told that good design involves failure and failure is important for innovation. I'd argue that designers themselves often know that design is iterative and exploratory, with important dead-ends that lead to strong results, but their managers or other necessary stakeholders don't know this. I hope Scott and Jared are being heard by these other folks, too, and not just by designers.

The people with the money are the ones that matter. They determine what constitutes failure, in the short term, like it or not. Many design consultants worry that client judgments don't take this iterative process into account. We are paid to be fast, creative, and accurate, all at the same time. Mistakes or dead-end work aren't seen as productive value for the money by many hiring managers. And their own sometimes flawed design judgments are at play in their judgments of our work. What should be a success is seen as a failure, through the squinty eyes of a manager that doesn't get it. It takes design talent to recognize design talent, yet most hiring managers aren't skilled or talented in this way.

This phenomenon leads to failures that shouldn't have been failures - good work was thrown out, bad work was done instead. Happens all the time. Happens on every dialog, every icon, every wording argument. Most of us live with failure very regularly: The little voice inside blaming us for not arguing the point just a little longer, for not standing up to that bully on the team about this important issue, for not getting to that other issue that's probably more controversial and yet more important for the user in the long run, for not making one more mockup to try to show how it could be better, or moving to Flash to show how it would work for real.... Oh yeah, we've got a lot of failure all the time. And our failures are much more visible than the guy writing some code on the backend that thrown an uncaught exception, which may not be noticed for years!

My point of greatest concern about these homages to failure right now is that they don't take into account power dynamics in most engineering organizations. (To be fair, Scott's talk does, and he found that managers who aren't skilled in design are a major cause of failures.) Designers are a minority discipline, and often we're trying to change processes and methods while also delivering on our work. We're trying to set an example with our deliverables and methods. The odds of success are already long against, given the weight of org history and number of people we need to convince. As minorities, we're often trying to argue for more headcount, and every misstep can be seen as another argument against hiring more of us.

Visible failures aren't generally a positive option, when disciplinary credibility is at stake.

4 comments :

Joshua said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this Lynn. I started reading expecting to disagree with you, but by the end I had to agree with most of your points.

The "cult of fail" comes out of startup entrepreneurship and overcoming fear to start something, anything, quickly, but those lessons don't necessarily extend to design. Rapid iteration and prototyping in a project's early stages is great, but you're right, too often stakeholders don't understand this design process.

This must be one reason big interactive design agencies relentlessly promote their special processes. I doubt expensive consultancies talk much about the value of fail!

Lynn said...

Thanks, Josh. I hope it comes thru that I would like to have all clients and managers on board with understanding how design failure is part of the process - but I don't think most companies are ready for that yet. And the economics of design processes still make it expensive to fail.

Berkun said...

Good post. You know it makes me think my real passion is learning. Learning from successes, failures, whatever.

I think often people don't learn much from their successes either - or they learn the wrong things much of the time.

So really I'm just passionate about learning from whatever just happened. I don't think most people most of the time are very good at this. How to learn from everything would be a great title for a book / course / something.

Lynn said...

Thanks, Scott. Glad you're okay with it - because my next post is about Hard Skills over Soft Ones ;-)