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The Certainty of Failure

22 May 2020

Everyone makes mistakes, that should be a given. Knowing this, the question becomes not “if” one will slip, but “when”. Of course, experience and working hard can help in reducing the number of errors, but there’s no way for someone to have an absolutely perfect track record.

This is why I feel like an interesting way to look at any significant problem I’ve created is to think to myself: “good news, it’s my fault”. Since I put myself in this situation, I can fix the part under my control and possibly avoid the problem next time.

It doesn’t always feel good to admit to have messed up in some fashion, and the first reaction can be to deflect blame. However identifying mistakes quickly is an obvious first step for improving over time, and hopefully not repeating the same errors over and over again. It’s also more empowering to look at what we can control instead of undergoing a situation with no way to fix it.

In an organisation, when a mistake is made, it’s unhealthy to either conclude that it’s no one’s fault, or go to another extreme and say that only one person is to blame. For instance if the intern deletes the production database by running a poorly written script, the intern messed up… but their manager didn’t check their work, the senior engineer didn’t read the script before merging it into master, the SRE team didn’t secure the production access, the CTO let all of this happen and the CEO hired the CTO!

Because of this, as a manager, it can be helpful to remind teammates that errors are bound to happen and that everyone involved has a bit of responsibility when a mistake is made. If my direct report fails, I fail, my boss fails and so on. To make sure to move forward effecitently, we all need to look at where we messed up and do better next time by training more, paying more attention to details, improving communication and so on.

It’s not about pointing fingers, judging the ability of people and figuring out who to fire, it’s about being open and honnest about the certainty of failure at some point and reacting appropriately. Ignoring this fact and expecting perfection form yourself & your direct reports is exhausting and unproductive. It would also lead to people hiding errors and trying to fix them alone, which is never a good situation.

It’s also not about always trying to fix every single error, in some cases we have no choice but to let some minor mistakes go depending on the situation, and not stress too much over them.

This mindset alongside other measures can help create a team culture where people don’t hesitate to share their failure and learn quickly from them. In turn, this can allow for things like blameless retrospectives, more psychological safety for all and a quicker adoption of best practices through sharing experience.

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