A well-working failure culture is important in all industries today. However, especially in IT-related companies, where knowledge work is performed, it is becoming increasingly important. Large, complex projects and products, some of which are developed by large, sometimes globally-distributed and interdisciplinary teams – it is almost impossible to avoid failures. A well-working failure culture creates an atmosphere of trust here for all involved (employees and superiors), in which the discovery of failures is perceived as something positive.
Indications for a lack of error culture.
In my work as a Scrum Master and Agile Coach, I have seen many different customers, departments and projects in a wide variety of industries. In the following, I would like to describe some indications that, in my experience, often point to a lack of error culture.
In retrospect, each of the team members sticks their sticky notes on the wall: "great team", "good sprint result" can be read there. After 15 minutes, the team pats each other on the back and decides that no further action is needed because the team is already perfectly on track.
This can often be a deceptive situation, as the real problems may not be addressed because of fear or perceived respect. Another question is whether the team was attentive enough during the sprint to be able to identify errors in the first place – since errors are perceived as something negative.
“verba volant, scripta manent”
Documenting results is part of daily, professional work. The focus here is on ensuring that knowledge and decisions are transparent and comprehensible to others in the team later, and that important things are not forgotten.
In companies without an established error culture, however, this motivation quickly recedes into the background. In such organizations, it is more a matter of securing one's own position in the upcoming blaming process and looking good to the boss. In German, there is an old saying “Wer schreibt, bleibt” – who writes, will stay.
failure culture as the basis for agile transformation and innovation.
Almost every technology company is currently doing an agile transformation. Unfortunately, all too often the focus is on defining and adapting processes, organizational charts and roles. The often-cited "agile mindset" is neglected, yet it is precisely this mindset that gives the various agile frameworks, processes and approaches their effectiveness. This also includes a well-working failure culture – not only in the development teams, but in all areas of the organization. In the following, we will look at some aspects of agile and how they relate to the failure culture of the organization.
inspect and adapt.
Companies where a good failure culture has never been practiced will struggle with the transparency of a retrospective or a review. The employees are not aware that every identified problem holds the opportunity for an improvement – or even worse: they suppress this fact. The "Inspect and Adapt" paradigm cannot work in such companies or teams. They preserve the status quo and waste their own potential for fear of being punished for mistakes.
team spirit and self-organization.
If a team lacks mutual trust and a healthy attitude towards failures, there is a constant distrust of each other. Tally sheets are in people's heads listing who has made the most mistakes and people are reduced to this – after all, one is the strongest team member anyway.
Such a basic attitude towards colleagues and their failures nips any self-organization in the bud. Everyone should be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and share this knowledge with the team. In this way, tasks can be distributed in a targeted manner within the team, and knowledge gaps can be closed in order to ultimately form a powerful team that can develop the product and thus be prepared for future challenges.
In agile projects, the quality of the work results always has a very high priority, for example by pair programming or automated tests. However, development teams in which no well-working failure culture has been established are struggling with that. None of the developers wants anyone else to find out about their "code smell" or possible failures. Everyone develops for themselves, without a safety net. All in all, this increases the risk of failures and poorer quality of the application. In the end, it is the customer who will complain.
The situations and consequences of lacking a well-working failure culture described above are, of course, only examples. However, they all lead to inefficient and ineffective work, which of course also affects the profitability of the company.
Another aspect is the declining motivation of employees. An atmosphere of fear leads to high employee turnover. Especially in the IT industry, where highly specialized employees are needed, the loss of an employee and their know-how is very expensive for the company.
Establishing a positive failure culture.
The question is how to establish a well-working failure culture in a team or an organization. I cannot present a standard recipe for this here. However, I would like to give a few suggestions and an insight of another industry sector.
error culture in the aviation industry.
In 1977, one of the biggest catastrophes in the aviation industry occurred at Tenerife Airport with 583 deaths. This catastrophe might have been avoidable if the pilot had taken the concerns of his colleague in the cockpit seriously.
The aviation industry reacted in the following years and many airlines introduced "Crew Resource Management" (CRM). This is designed to train the soft skills of the crew to detect errors at an early stage, communicate openly, accept them as feedback and solve them as a team. This includes, for example, observing each other and giving feedback or joint and detailed flight planning.
agile methods and tools.
If you take a closer look at the concepts of CRM, you will see some parallels to ideas and methods from the Agile world of work.
Two-way observation, with the goal of providing feedback, manifests itself in development teams, for example, in code reviews or pair programming with the goal of identifying failures as early as possible and promoting the transfer of know-how.
Joint planning of tasks takes place in Scrum in the Sprint Planning and the Daily. The focus is always on the goal and mutual support.
Of course, a multitude of other parallels can be pointed out here. However, it is more important to recognize that we basically already have many tools in the Agile context that pursue the same goals and concepts as a CRM. In order to fulfill our goal, the establishment of a well-working failure culture, they must of course be used and established correctly.
failure culture as a management task.
Management also has a crucial role to play. An employee must be able to trust that a failure will not have disciplinary consequences. This requires a good relationship of trust between the manager and employee. Building this is not easy. However, a good approach is to seek personal proximity, for example at lunch together or at the coffee machine.
Everyone should always be convinced that each employee has done the best he or she can with the given circumstances and with the resources available (Prime Directive for Retrospectives). Employees and managers should always act on this and focus on learning from failures.
The "Fuckup Night" format is very popular. Here, personalities such as the founder of Zalando, talk about their personal failures, how they dealt with them and what they learned from them. The message is that everyone makes failures, but it is important to reflect and learn from them.
Such formats can be implemented on a large or small scale, whether company-wide or over a cup of coffee. If managers and board members also report on their experiences (because they also make mistakes), this is certainly the start of a new corporate culture.
failure culture means laughing about it afterwards.
A well-working failure culture is an important and supporting pillar for a successful company today. It is the basis for collegial cooperation, good team spirit, and last but not least, the economic success of the company.
At the same time, it is a complex task to establish such a well-working failure culture in already existing organizations. To do this, old, habitual and encrusted structures and thought patterns must be broken up and new ones must be established. Models of change management, such as John P. Kotter's stage model, help us to understand the establishment as a process and provide us with methods for carrying out this change.
Companies that take this step, however, will continue to gain in attractiveness as employers and display the necessary innovative strength that the future market will demand of them, while still having fun.