Yesterday was what should be a tough day for me at MSFT, I made a lot of mistakes. As part of my ongoing Blue Pill, I am required to complete corporate training. Today, I tried to pass the exam for the licensing training. I had to take the exam 10 (maybe more times) before I could pass. Why?
- Challenging material – The complexity of OEMs, Systems Builders, Small & Medium Business, Enterprise and the options available is unbelievable.
- Difficult naming – Who really cares about the difference between Open Value, Open Business and Open Volume licensing?
- Lack of interest – Honestly, I just don’t care. It explains why Microsoft is so good at selling software, because they’ve figured out a way to create a license for you!
This was coupled with my making an “inappropriate” comment at the wrong time. The comments were meant as harmless jokes, but in a publicly traded organization they could be perceived as inflammatory. Definitely nothing illegal or inflammatory, just a lack of understanding of the difficulties and regulations for publicly traded companies. All of this could have been made worse when the president of Microsoft Canada, Phil Sorgen, stepped off the elevator immediately after I made the comments. But the comments were harmless, they were a joke, a bad, inappropriate joke.
All things said it was an ok day, I feel like an idiot because an hour long online training course took me 3 hours to complete. I made an unfortunate, inappropriate joke about Microsoft software. And I’ve managed to learn a lot about what not to say, and what not to do today. The team has been really supportive, and it got me thinking about corporate cultures that support failure. Enabling your employees to fail is a really difficult thing. We write goals, we aim for successes. My “commitments” do not include the things I’m going to do wrong this coming year, they talk about the measurable outcomes and the process for achieving these outcomes.
“If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” – Thomas Watson
Failures should be celebrated. We often learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. Failure is more commonly accepted in the product development process. Iterative design. Prototyping. Testing. We make assumptions about how a technology will work and how people will use the thing we’ve built. Often we get it write, but more often then not, we’re wrong. Failing faster allows us to test the assumptions and make the necessary, often painful choices to move on.
Boxes and Arrows has started a Lessons from Failure series highlighting the dirty laundry inside agencies. Stephen Casey has written 2 books filled with tales of failure and error, Set Phasers on Stun and The Atomic Chef tell the stories of what happens when designers and engineers build systems without understanding people. These are real stories about systems design and failure. The author provide the problem, the solution, the consequences and detailed analysis of the thinking and culture that lead to the failures. Further reading includes:
- To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
- Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design
- Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequenses
Failure has dire consequences when building medical equipment, airplanes, bridges, buildings, automobiles and other everyday systems. Failure on the web is less life threatening. However understanding how and when your they fail using your application is important. Jason Fried from 37signals has written an excellent book about defensive web design, Defensive Design for the Web: How to improve error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points, that offers practical solutions to trouble spots that cause customers confusion and frustration.
Rinse and repeat
The value of failure isn’t the failure itself. It’s a culture that allows you to fail, and requires you to reflect and investigate the causes of the failure and to make the changes necessary to not repeat them. This means learning how to iterate: plan what youâ€™re going to do, do it, learn from it, make changes, and do it again and again. Rinse and repeat.