Monday, 16 April 2012

In the face of failure - part 2

Sometimes we fail to achieve what we have set our minds to achieve. That is not always a bad thing as we might learn something about the process of failing. The failure itself may require us to change our perspective or approach to the task at hand. In the first part I covered what happens when a test fails. In the second part I look into people's failure in effort to do something. All along I try to offer insight and learning possibilities to the subjects.

When a person fails (or doesn’t fail)…

Tests can fail. They reveal information when they do so. Even a passed test may reveal new information. Same thing basically apply to human failures. Why did my effort fail? What are the critical points that lead into the failure? Is there a possibility that the failure was evident and there was nothing that could be done to prevent it? If not, how can I see the critical points in the future?

Are we the cause of failure?

There are hundreds of self flagellation books that motivate you not to fail. If we are to attain a critical mind and keep it, we need to realize that we are fallible. We make mistakes, ok? There's nothing you can do to rid yourself of all failures. By keeping in mind that you are allowed to fail, you may prioritize with more precision, plan important thing more carefully, and learn from events that may lead into the failure.

The worst enemy of a person (who fails or succeeds) is ignorance. The ignorance itself may be the cause of failure, but by ignoring the root cause for a failure prevents all learning. Ignorance leading to failure is the worst cause, but still a person can learn from ignoring as much as from anything else. A person may have a reason to ignore something due to scheduling, required effort/skill/resources, insufficient knowledge, or a memory lapse. This is a kind of benign ignorance, as the ignorance is used as a tool towards the goal. If a person chooses to neglect, belittle, condescend either other people directly or indirectly, it is malign ignorance. A person failing to deliver on time because of procrastination or lack of interest in the subject falls to the same malign category.

People can learn from ignorance, more easily from benign ignorance than from malign. You can always choose to take note on the thing you previously ignored and decrease the risk to fail. Even attitude of ignoring can be changed, but it could require huge effort to do so. It is encouraged that people rid themselves of ignorance to important matters. They may prioritize some things lower than others and thus they do not ignore them completely. Asking "am I ignoring important things?" could result in fewer failures. If a failure occurs, what was ignored and why?

We may fail also because of choosing the wrong tools, approach or methods. For example making a presentation about some scientific thingy and structuring it poorly, may result in failure. Choosing wrong viewpoints (or too few) can result in biased view and thus result in failure. We may even choose the right tool and fail because of lack of skills to use it. If I don't have the sufficient skills to do this, who has? Can I utilize that person’s skills in this task? Do I have to adjust my views to reach a better result or to suit the given task?

We may make a efficient contribution towards succeeding in the task but it may still fail. We may have overlooked some important information that could drastically change the outcome of our task, or we could have made the wrong interpretation. The material or the baseline itself on which we built our effort upon may be faulty. Have we enough information to successfully complete the task? How do we determine that? Is the opinion I have conclusive enough to lead into success?

"It's their fault!" ;)

All things leading into failure are not reliant upon the person doing the task. The task mey require effort from multiple people or organizations and all cannot be controlled. To succeed in a multi-person, multi-venue task we need to establish a knowledge which person is holding what information / is responsible of which deliverance / responsible form which sub-task. If keys to our success lie in another person's hands, we need to make sure those keys open the doors for us.

It could be that the venue where you were to hold the presentation is accidentally overbooked and your effort fails. They may have suffered from a Force Majeure or something completely irrelevant to the task at hand but preventing from succeeding in it. There are some cases where one can find learning opportunities regarding the Force Majeure incidents. Can I prevent the task from failing due to unexpected events? Does a failure due to those events cause failure to retry? Can I take precautionary actions to prevent those things affecting my task?

If the environment and the nature (a stampeding elephant horde is considered a force of nature. "Jumanji!") don't cause a failure you still have take into account the audience of your task. This may include the people taking part to a presentation, the stakeholders of a software project, etc. The person doing the task has little power to effect the audience. The stakeholders may have beliefs, reasons, attitudes, etc. that may hinder the successful execution of a task. Audience may choose to ignore your topic and perform a no-show (or have more important thing to do at the time). What can I do to ensure that the task fulfills the goals regarding the audience/stakeholders? Do I need to adjust my approach so that the stakeholders don't have to struggle to relate to me or my topic? Do I need to do research on the receiving end of my task?

By asking important questions about the task and the surroundings can drastically decrease the possibility of a failure. And even if you fail, you will have a solid base for learning from your observations and the information received from the analysis of a failure. Accepting that you are fallible increases the ability to think critically. By anchoring ourselves to the opinion that we can't fail, makes us vulnerable to being biased and blind to important details and information.

Don’t think failing as a bad thing...

As we know, we all fail at something. There's nothing wrong with that. Succeeding might result in fewer learning opportunities than failing in the same task. Still, we can use the same techniques we use to analyze failures to apply to analyzing success. Did I prioritize efficiently my time and tasks? Was there a pit that I fell into thus decreasing my chances of succeeding? How can I remove that deficiency in my future doings?

Attitude towards failure is one of the biggest obstacles towards success, as we think it makes us losers or bad people (at least some people do that). Every attempt is a learning opportunity, pass or fail. Inquisitive mind is the best tool to enable learning in failure as in success.

If you found this piece of blog post inspirational, please comment that it was inspirational. If not, then comment that it wasn't. What ever the response, tell me why. If we (failing or succeeding in our doings) do not get feedback on from our effort, we cannot tell whether it is a success or not. By saying so, I don't encourage people to praise without justification or mock unnecessarily. The task for commenting is to succeed in commenting. Would you rather fail or succeed in that?


Thomas Ponnet said...

Thanks for posting this interesting article.
It is often easier to decide if a test fails or not. We may want to use oracles to help us decide. If a person fails or not is a lot harder to say. I'd rather say that they fail at a particular task.
Saying a person fails is dodgy territory at the best of times and wide open to abuse as you will agree I'm sure..

Thanks for posting.

Pekka Marjamäki said...

Hi Thomas! I totally agree. A person fails in specific tasks and that failure is sometimes analyzable and thus a learning opportunity might present itself. Using failing as a general term to describe some person ("Person A is a failure") might lead to conflict as it's more of an insult.