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Celebrating Learning from Failure

Personal growth
Company Culture

30 June, 2020

Jeff Foster, Head of Product Engineering, taps into his own experience to demonstrate why failure is an integral part of success and how one of their striking failures was immortalized and transformed into a learning experience.

Problem

There is no doubt that failure is an integral part of success and that to achieve the greatest success, you have to embrace failure. Nevertheless, in spite of all the efforts to integrate values of the blameless culture across engineering organizations and thus encourage risk-taking, many people, including many managers, are profoundly affected by values that society instilled in them -- that failures are bad and that they reflect our lack of competencies, skills, and hard work.
 

At my company, one of our developers mistakenly replaced our products with the Spotify Installer. The problem was quickly identified and solved, but how could we turn this into a learnable moment?
 

Actions taken

Once we were notified that there was a problem and that our products were accidentally replaced by the Spotify Installer, we immediately responded. We immediately fixed the problem and did a standard “5 Whys approach” to understand the root cause of the problem (lesson learned: make sure production/test are well separated!)
 

In the meantime, comments started to pour in ranging from making jokes about it to some serious scoffing. Instead of chastising the person responsible for the mistake, we turned it around to be a learning opportunity. What was wrong with the system that led the individual to make a mistake?
 

I think the above is a pretty common way of solving the problem, but we went further. We wanted to create a company culture that encourages learning through failure. We immortalized this story in our employee handbook and even created an award to celebrate the biggest mistake.
 

I’m sure all companies have their own failure stories but are reluctant to share them publicly. However, I would strongly encourage them to share those stories and thus reinforce their cultural values.
 

Lessons learned

  • As an essential part of success, failures should be embraced and celebrated as part of the learning experience.
  • Failing means trying. Every failure is a result of our efforts to make something happen. The culture of experimentation is a cornerstone of tech/software development and it implies constantly coming up with new, often silly ideas, testing them and most of the time -- failing. Therefore, in the culture of experimentation, failures are embraced and insights obtained through failures as are valued.
  • Blameless culture critically contributes to the overall psychological safety that allows for risk-taking, innovation, trying, and making mistakes without being criticized and/or punished for your endeavors.
  • Publishing a story as an artifact became an exemplary tool that we use to both promote our values, but also as a recruiting tool that indicates what it means to work in our company and what is the behavior we favor. In addition, it helped us to embed our failures as a shared, institutional memory within the company that profoundly reflect our company culture.

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