Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Try.Fail.Learn.Improve. That has been the signature on my e-mail for the past few months. It is intended to be both enlightening and provocative. It emphasizes that we won't get things right the first time. That it is okay to fail as long as we don't fail repeatedly in the same way. Try.Fail.Learn.Improve is a process that needs to be constantly repeated. It is a way of life.

When I first used this phrase, someone responded that it was too strongly worded. Perhaps I should say "Try, Learn, Succeed" instead. But that doesn't convey the true value of the phrase. I specifically chose the word Fail because I wanted to emphasize that we would get things wrong. I avoided the word succeed because I wanted to convey that the process would be a long one.

Try. The essence of getting anything done is to start. In the world of software and especially systems software, we are always doing something unknown. We are not building the nth bridge or even the nth website. As such, the answers are not known up front. How could they be? Thus we can't say, "Do." That implies a known course of action. Try is more accurate. Make a hypothesis about what might work and try it out. Run the experiment.

Fail. Most of the time--not just sometimes--what is tried will fail. It is important to be able to recognize when we fail. Trying something that cannot fail is also doing something from which we cannot learn. Only with the possibility of failure can learning be had. Failure should be expected. "Embrace Failure" is advice I gave early into my new role. Much traditional software has viewed success as the only metric. The downside is that failure was punished. When something is punished, it will diminish. People will shy away from it. Punishing failure will disincentivize people from taking risk. The lack of risk means a lack of failure and a lack of learning. Given that we don't know the correct path to take, this lack of learning ensures a lack of success.

Learn. Einstein is said to have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It is possible to fail and not learn. This is usually the result of blame. In a failure-averse culture, admitting you were wrong has severe repercussions. Failure then is not admitted. It is not embraced. Instead, it is blamed on something external. "We would have succeeded if only the marketing team had done their job. The essence of learning is understanding failure. Why did things go differently than predicted? In the scientific method, this helps to set up the next experiment.

Improve. Once we have failed and learned something about why we failed, it is time to try again. Device the next experiment. If what we tried did not work, what else might work? Revise the hypothesis and begin the cycle again. Try the next thing. If at first you don't succeed--and you won't--try, try again.

Succeed. Eventually, if we improve in this iterative fashion, we will succeed. This will take a while. Do not expect it to happen after the first, second, or even third turn of the crank. Success often comes in stages. It is not all or nothing.

If success is such an elusive item and will take many cycles to achieve, is it possible to get to success faster? Yes. Designing better experiments can help. If we understand well enough to do them. Blind experimentation will take too long. But many times we don’t know enough to design great experiments. What then? This is the most likely situation. In it, the best solution is to learn to run more experiments. Reduce the time each turn of the crank takes. Tighten the loop. Design smaller experiments that can be implemented quickly, run quickly, and understood quickly.

One last word on success. It is impossible to succeed if you don't know what success looks like. Be sure to understand where you are trying to go. If you don't, how can you know if an experiment got you closer? You can't learn if you can't fail and you can't fail if you don't know what you are measuring for. As Yogi Berra said, "If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up somewhere else."

So get out there and fail. It's the only way to learn.

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