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culture of failure (blameless culture)

A culture of failure is a set of shared values, goals and practices that encourages learning through experimentation. The goal of building a culture of failure is to create workflows that allow employees to learn from unsuccessful endeavors. Culture of failure has its roots in lean management and is often associated with acheiving a culture of innovation.

Instead of fearing or punishing failures, a company that believes in failure-as-an-option (FaaO) recognizes that failure is part of the learning process and that each unsuccessful experiment provides valuable feedback that ultimately can be used to achieve success. By embracing and even seeking out small failures through constant experimentation, each lack of success provides the company with more data to draw upon on when deciding how to move forward.

To sustain a functional culture of failure, a company should:

  • Have a systems-based approach to recovering and learning from failures.
  • Be able to monitor and observe failures.
  • Build workflows that allow employees to respond to and recover from failures.
  • Be able to determine the root cause and proximal causes of a failure and address it with the goal of future prevention.

Blameless culture vs. blameful culture

Proponents recognize that many times failures are the result of competing priorities and mismatched dependencies that have been years in the making. A culture of failure is important because it allows companies teams/organizations to view failure as an integral part of a system rather than an isolated mistake that could hurt the organization.

A blameless culture encourages and relies on employees to share failures in reports on the state of the system they work in. When individuals are not worried about blaming or being blamed, it is likely they will be more willing to share ideas and acknowledge mistakes.

In contrast, employees in a blameful culture are often criticized and sometimes demoted or fired for generating an idea that turns out to be a failure. This simply reinforces the idea that failure should never be an option and makes employees less likely to admit when something has not worked. In turn, this increases the likelihood that small failures can grow unchecked until they become tipping points towards disaster.

Culture of failure in digital transformation

Cultures of failure are becoming the norm in the era of digital transformation and internet giants like Google, Netflix and Amazon are all proponents of the concept. When Amazon introduced the Fire phone, for example, the product turned out to be a financial failure and lost the company $170 million. Instead of chasing after sunk costs, Amazon engineers took what they learned from failure of the phone and pivoted attention to other products such as Echo, the Alexa-enabled smart speaker.

A culture of failure is especially useful to teams/organizations that work with complex, large-scale distributed systems that roll out changes to software code through a progressive delivery model. This approach to software development is designed to accommodate failure in complex, distributed computing environments. Every organization regardless of scale is prone to failure, but proneness increases with the velocity of change and scale of the system.

Booking.com is an example of a company that manifests a culture of failure through constant experimentation and progressive delivery. They have a process in place that allows any employee to launch an experiment without permission from management, and also allows any employee to cancel that experiment. This creates a system that reinforces constant experimenting with a robust system of checks and balances. Everyone is accountable for everyone else’s ideas. As a result, Booking.com has millions of variations of its landing page at any given time, each collecting user data and further informing the company’s progressive delivery.

As the digital economy expands, there is an increasing number of ways for marketers, sales and support staff to communicate with customers. While optimizing all these new channels has the potential to make a company more competitive, the work required to support optimization is likely to be experimental and bring with it a high probability of failure. It is important, therefore, that companies wishing to embrace the concept of failure as an option have tools, processes and workflows in place to support lessons learned.

Tools that support a culture of failure

A culture of failure must have mechanisms in place to tolerate and deal with failure before it occurs. When there is an infrastructure in place with tools geared towards failing fast, companies can gather more data with which to guide their next move in an ever-changing digital environment. Facebook, Etsy, and Booking.com (among many others) are all proponents of a culture of failure and each vendor has put practices and infrastructure in place to support failure as just another type of feedback.

  • Google Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) uses postmortems to capture and share lessons learned from failure. The retrospective provides documentation for what went wrong, what the impact was, what actions were taken to mitigate or resolve what went wrong and the action items put in place to prevent the incident from recurring.
  • LaunchDarkly offers a platform with feature flagging, a technology that allows code changes to be rolled out incrementally to small, select groups through canary tests before changes are released to the general population.
  • Gremlin provides tools to support chaos engineering, a strategy whereby software engineers intentionally inject failure to test the resilience of their systems.

Culture of failure vs. continuous improvement

Culture of failure is often compared with Kaizen, the Japanese culture of continuous improvement. Both approaches to building culture recognize that in information technology, failure is inevitable and it's not a question of if something will fail, but when. Both approaches emphasize learning from mistakes and making changes to processes and systems that will prevent the same mistake from happening again. A major difference in the two approaches, however, is that continuous improvement places emphasis on improving the status quo, while a culture of failure places more emphasis on innovation.

This was last updated in September 2019

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