Why it’s good for software development teams to fail

Our best learnings in software development often come when we fail. The downside is that developers tend not to focus on failure because they fear that it will impact their career and their lives.

The result?

Failure means they won’t try something similar and, as a consequence, innovation is slowed down – often discouraged – and they and the companies they work for miss out on the real potential to be gained.

Take James Dyson – he spent 15 years and had 5,126 attempts at creating his bagless vacuum cleaner. Clearly, it would have been easy to give up along the way, but his perseverance transformed the industry through innovation.

And when I talk about failure, I don’t necessarily mean new code failing at the test stage – it’s bigger than that and covers the whole development process from creation to production.

The seven steps of change

As a Development Lead in many software companies, I’ve seen this fear of failure many times and a common pattern emerges. A good way of illustrating it is the Kubler-Ross Change Curve which is often used to predict how performance will be affected by a major change. This has seven steps:

Shock

I can’t believe this has happened

Denial

There’s no way it’s my fault it has happened

Frustration

This process is really annoying me now, it’s taking so long

Depression

I can’t believe people think it is my fault

Experiment

I’m getting used to this, so how can I learn and change?

Decision

That’s it, I’m going to change

Integration

I’ve accepted the change and I’m going to move on

Normally people run through Shock, Denial, Frustration, Depression and Experimentation before making a Decision, and then Integrating it into their lives. But with failure they jump straight from Shock and Denial all the way to the Decision stage – and that decision is normally never to get in the same position again.

Taking a positive approach to failure

It doesn’t have to be like this – in fact, forward-looking technology organisations should instead foster a culture where failure is seen as something to learn from.

How can they do this?

It starts by analysing your current culture and understanding how it’s sabotaging your efforts through fear of failure. Things to look out for include:

Omission bias.

Essentially fear that failure will cause something bad to happen, such as losing your job. Therefore, people work very carefully not to do something that could lead to failure, stifling innovation.

Loss aversion

Studies show that the pain we get from loss far outweighs the pleasure from again. So we play not to lose, rather than going all-out to win. In terms of work it translates into taking a half-hearted approach in case it goes wrong – hardly the recipe for innovation.

Self-sabotage

inding excuses to procrastinate – “I know we should change this testing process to speed things up, but I don’t have the time to work on it now. I’ll do it next week”. And we know what happens next week – you’re equally busy and it gets put off again.

Not committing to doing something unless you can be sure that it will be a success. Again, this holds back innovation and trying something new.

Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS).

Instinctively thinking that not only will something new fail, but it will be a complete catastrophe, so it’s best to walk away now.

Putting the right culture in place

I’ve talked about some of the negative ways that fear of failure comes through in culture – but how can you successfully overcome it and use failure as a positive? Here are four ways that you can work with

Create a decision tree

Map out all the possible scenarios and outcomes. What happens if something does go wrong – what are the options and where do they lead? This allows you to plan effectively and remove some of those ANTS.

Positive thinking techniques

Changing how you describe or think about a scenario helps you be more rational about it. If a project fails, rather than seeing it as the end of the world, reframe it as a difficulty that can be overcome over time

Thought awareness

Recognise when you start to think negatively and keep a log of it. When does it happen most often? Once you understand this you can prepare yourself better to deal with these thoughts – for example, what’s the worst case scenario and how likely is it to really happen

Embrace psychological safety

The best way to overcome the fear of failure is to talk openly about it within your team and the wider organisation. That makes people naturally feel vulnerable – you’re opening yourself up to others in a very raw way. So you need psychological safety – the belief that you can take risks and be honest without it damaging you and your career.

Studies by Google ranked psychological safety as the most important element in high-performing teams. After all, without it you can’t depend on people or talk honestly about your goals, roles and structure.

When you talk about failure in software testing, the tendency is to see it solely as a negative, necessitating rework and changes. However, by thinking more widely and overcoming the fear of failure you can drive innovation across your teams and your processes, benefiting everyone involved.

Written by Ben Mancini, Development Manager at Redgate

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