Learning from Failure

April 15 2017

Hi Listservians,

Like most other winners, my shock of winning (especially after being a member for so many years) quickly gave way to panic over what to write. But then I figured, I’d just tell you what I’ve told thousands of others around the world.

So let me back up a bit and introduce myself. I’m Jason. I work for a tech startup as an “evangelist,” which means one aspect of my job is to travel the world speaking at various tech events and conferences. It’s a pretty sweet gig.

Often I speak about topics like infrastructure monitoring and DevOps, but recently I’ve been speaking a lot about how we learn from failures in complex systems. Complex systems include anything where cause and effect isn’t obvious, and where you need to rely on observations of correlated and contributing events. (If you’re curious, read the wikipedia page for the Cynefin framework)

Most aspects of your life are complex systems, from accomplishing life goals, to interactions with other people. For example, that time you said something to a friend and they got really happy or angry. That was a complex system not only of what you said and the tone of your voice, but also of their history - from the events from earlier in the day that set their mood to all of their life experiences that shape how they understand and process your words.

The very nature of complex systems means that not only are outcomes difficult to predict, but unexpected failure is bound to happen.

Since unexpected failures are inevitable, the best strategy for operating complex systems is to try to detect failure and the contributing factors more quickly. To do this, after each failure we try to ask the following questions:

1. “What happened?” It may seem obvious as you just experienced this failure, but asking yourself to actually explain the situation forces you to think logically through the steps leading to the failure. It’s even better if you write it out.

2. “How did I detect the failure?” In life, our failures often have one major notification - someone screaming at us, a financial cost, or maybe a physical injury. But the important aspect here is to start to examine the failure for other means of detection - was there tone or body language changes before the person screamed at you? Were there warning signs before the repercussions hit? Recognizing these indicators will help you avoid repeating the failure.

3. “How did other people see the situation?” When dealing with complex systems, we always assume that people try to make the best decisions with the information they have. This means that “human error” is never the cause of failure, but a symptom of lack of information or poor system design. Similarly, when you have a failure in life, the cause is never you or another person. This becomes apparent when you start to ask why someone did what they did or insist that they should have done something else - both are clear evidence that you have information they did not have or have different understandings of the information.

4. “What can I change?” To improve any system or life, you need solid action steps. These need to be actual changes, rather than promises to be “more aware” or “to try.” Think about actions you can take to improve detection (question 2) and improve sharing information (question 3). The changes don’t need to be drastic. Small changes lead to incremental improvements that add up to significantly better systems.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope it helps you find more success by learning from your failures. As Henry Ford once said, “The only failure is the one from which we learn nothing.”

Jason Yee
Portland, Oregon

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