Failure is the F-Word in International Development

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On Friday night, I organized the third annual Fail Faire DC to celebrate as a mark of innovation and risk-taking. Check out the photos and Twitter stream of the event.

gives me the annual opportunity to question why we are still all so scared of using the word “failure” in our work. And this year was no exception.

Somehow, we’ve associated “failure” with only the utmost catastrophic events – a Hindenburg crash – rather than the reality that failure happens on a scale from the mundane – “I failed to remember to get milk” – to the serious, but not life-altering structural failures – Apple Maps.

Our association of failure with just the catastrophic is so great that I’ve had hour-long conversations about Fail Faire with others who never once actually use the word “failure” in our conversation. “Failure” has become the F-word for development.

To help us all start on the road to failure recovery, and to understand the different types of failure, I’ve made the following failure scale:

10 Levels of Failure Framework:

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  1. Catastrophic failure
    Failure a scale so vast as to encompass the lives and livelihoods of generations to come. Examples: the meltdowns at Fukushima Dai-1 and Chernobyl; building codes in Haiti before January 2010. Possible future catastrophic fails: asteroids, climate change.
  2. Abject failure
    This failure marks you and you may not ever fully recover from it. People lose their lives, jobs, respect, or livelihoods. Examples: British Petroleum’s Gulf oil spill; mortgage-backed securities.
  3. Start-up failure
    A big bet backed by money and momentum, that wipes out both when the market shifts or the business model hits reality. Examples: Pets.com; Jumo.org; Solyndra LLC
  4. Structural failure
    It cuts – deeply – but it doesn’t permanently cripple your identity or enterprise. Examples: Apple iOS 5 Maps; Windows Vista.
  5. Glorious failure
    Going out in a botched but beautiful blaze of glory – catastrophic but exhilarating. Example: Jamaican bobsled team.
  6. Epic failure
    This is a failure that brings joy to all and perhaps even fame and stardom for the fail succeeder. Examples: Celebrity antics; Youtube videos of people falling down; FAILblog
  7. Common failure
    Everyday instances of screwing up that are not too difficult to recover from. The apology was invented for this category. Examples: oversleeping and missing a meeting at work; forgetting to pick up your kids from school; overcooking the tuna.
  8. Version failure
    Small failures that lead to incremental but meaningful improvements over time. Examples: Linux operating system; evolution.
  9. Predicted failure
    Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see what it is you really need to do more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: the prototype — only by creating imperfect early versions of it can you learn what’s necessary to refine it.
  10. Opportunity Failure
    The failure to take risks that leaves you wanting and is usually associated with sentences that begin with, “I should have…” Examples: Not buying Apple stock in 2006; Not selling Nokia stock in 2010; Not getting off your butt today.

Failure is Innovation

So now that we know that not all failure is equal, and not all failure is bad, let’s also realize that failure can actually be positive. If we fail early and often in project design – actively seek to find the limits and fail in small, controlled ways – we can make stronger and more robust projects overall.

Instead of building the app in isolation, or going all-in with a new partner, start small. Test. Fail. Change. Test again. Fail again. And continue until you know your system is both robust and flexible – the speakers made this point again and again Friday night. The big fails were often when projects went big early, without testing and failing in small ways first.

We can see this level of small fails leading to big success in the mobile phone ecosystem. There isn’t a day that goes by without a new handset or app that comes to market with a slight tweak on a previous design. At the same time, many of those tweaks fail, but a few explode into mass adoption. We may laugh at Apple Maps now, but wait a year and we will be awed by them.

Failure is Inevitable

Now there are people and organizations that do not believe failure is an option. Who declare they build systems and program without failure, immune or even invincible to rouge elements. They build Death Stars of perfection. And what happens to them? They’re blown up by a rebel alliance.

Rather than trying to go for perfect, and getting torpedoes down your airshaft, accept that failure is a good thing, a healthy influence to have in your projects and in your life. Failure is no reason to be ashamed.

Failure shows leadership, innovation, and risk-taking in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs. There is great value in examining our mistakes as we go beyond the easy and the simple. So don’t hide your failure – celebrate it.

In fact, failure is written on all of our faces (usually on class photo day) – so accept it and enjoy it.

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