Don’t Be Afraid to Get It Wrong on the Way to Getting It Right

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Diana G. Oblinger

Thomas Edison said: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Those are wise words for all managers to remember.

We want to avoid “failure.” We want our projects to turn out well, be on-time, be in-budget, and have satisfied customers. We want our careers to have a predictable path, progressing enough at each step to warrant being entrusted with more responsibility. And, we don’t ever want to be asked a question for which we don’t already know the answer.

No matter what we want, some things go wrong. My career has been full of missteps, wrong turns, missed opportunities, and outright mistakes. But just because you get it wrong once doesn’t mean that you don’t learn or that you won’t do better the next time. For example, some of our EDUCAUSE projects haven’t worked out quite right. Sometimes you have to make a start, expose the flaws in the idea or its execution, and move on. The idea grows, and you figure out what you need to make it more successful each time.

It is also important to keep asking questions. Challenge your assumptions—and the assumptions of others. Whether the goal is innovation or improvement, getting there is a process, not an event. Try and try again.

I’ve also learned that the best career path may not be the most direct. For example, I have taken jobs that were not right for me. I learned and moved on. Ironically, these “wrong” positions may be the ones that taught me the most—about myself, about how to manage and lead, and about what to do next. One learning experience led to another. I have been very fortunate in my career. But my career didn’t follow a direct path, and it certainly involved getting some things wrong.

Yet though it is easy to say “learn from your failures,” that is hard to actually do. Amy C. Edmondson, in her article “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” helps us understand that failure is not always bad. We may fear blame more than we fear failure; and we often conflate failure with fault. She describes a spectrum of reasons for failure, falling into three major categories: preventable, complexity-related, and intelligent.

We all work to avoid preventable failures. We use checklists. We have processes. If there is a problem, we pause, correct the process, and move forward. These types of failures often happen in routine work.

As IT professionals, we all also face unavoidable failures in complex systems. Edmondson notes that we often face needs, people, and problems in particular combinations that may never have occurred before. To some extent, failures in complex systems are unavoidable. A problem in one smaller process may cause a failure in a complex system because so many processes converge. When we find these failures, we learn from them.

Third, IT professionals increasing (and intentionally) “fail” when they are working at the frontiers of intelligence. Gaining new knowledge from planned (or unplanned) experiments may confer a competitive edge. In the world of start-ups, the slogan “fail often in order to succeed sooner” is accepted wisdom. Every failure provides valuable information—it is a byproduct of experimentation. Edmondson states: “Exceptional organizations are those that go beyond detecting and analyzing failures and try to generate intelligent ones for the express purpose of learning and innovating.”

Edmondson adds that because failure is inherently emotionally changed, the acceptance of failure within an organization requires leadership. She suggests focusing on what happened, rather than on who did it. Note that this does not mean that people are not held accountable. She advises organizations to set boundaries and to hold people accountable. In “blameless reporting,” reporting a mistake is not punished, although specific behaviors may be, such as conscious violation of standards or reckless conduct. Edmondson asserts that savvy managers, particularly those in complex organizations, are those who seek to find out about and resolve problems through learning. “Those that catch, correct, and learn from failure before others do will succeed. Those that wallow in the blame game will not.”

So for all of these reasons, don’t be afraid to get it wrong on the way to getting it right. For one thing, making mistakes is unavoidable. But more important, mistakes can lead to invaluable insights. Remember, Edison didn’t fail; he just found things that didn’t work. If none of us are perfect, then perhaps we should strive to perfect those strategies that can help us learn from our failures.