Anyone who’s been around in the agile space for a while knows the standard agile mantras: inspect and adapt, people over processes, and my own personal favorite: fail fast and learn fast.

Since my personal predilection tends toward trying to ensure success come what may, it’s been fairly tough for me to develop a personal discipline of learning from failure. I remember the turning point – it was a keynote session delivered by Henry Petroski at the 2001 OOPSLA conference on Success and Failure in Design. From James Cooper’s summary,

“The thrust of Petroski’s lecture was that the design of large architectural elements such as bridges went through a number of evolutionary steps, starting with limited understanding of the physical forces and material strengths and weights and moving towards much more sophisticated design. The key to success in building these structures is a thorough understanding how failure can occur, and design that includes allowing for that failure.”

Closer to the agile homestead, and nearer in time, the Lean Startup model has rocketed in popularity. The Lean Startup model contains, I believe, an eminently viable model for agilists to learn from failure, or to experiment in conditions of high uncertainty. Actually, it’s called pivoting, and the focus is completely on learning, and not on the failing because of the high speed and low cost with which it is accomplished. Our friend @DavidJBland, with whom I sometimes think I have a Wi-Fi mind meld, tweeted today about success and failure. He reiterates the Lean Startup essentials:

  1. Customer Development
  2. Business Model Generation
  3. Agile Software Development

As David points out: survival without any of the above is pretty tough.

If you’re more of a general management than a product management type, you might appreciate this: India’s famed Tata group employs an interesting technique in its quest for increased innovation and global growth. Chairman Ratan Tata has instituted a prize for the best failed idea.

Columbia Business School professor, Rita McGrath also identifies Google’s myriad failed ideas: Google Wave, Google Search Wiki, Google Audio Ads, Dodgeball, Google Print Ads, and Google Answers to name a few, and reminds us that a few blockbuster successes are built on many failures (pivots?).

Your thoughts on the role of failure and learning in success?

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