Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Failure is mandatory

A few days ago I had a conversation with Travis about failure. In some senses I'm a hard ass about failure - I think if you protect people from failure all the time you also protect them from learning anything. It's still important to protect people from potentially traumatic failure, but traumatic failure is the exception rather than the rule.

The context was how far our duty of care extends as consults, particularly in regard to the transfer of a solution to the customer. There's typically tension around this issue - the customer wants to maximise their investment in the solution itself, and in other projects as well, and that works against either documenting the solution or getting permanent staff involved. One position is that we should go out of our way to document/record knowledge of the solution for handover, even if the customer hasn't made that a priority. I think that's paternalistic (which is ironic given the example I'll use later). I think it's our responsibility to warn the customer that there's a handover risk, and to give some advice on how we'd handle that, but in the end it's up to the customer to decide how to invest their resources, and to wear the consequences of those decisions. I think it would be quite wrong of us to divert resources into documentation against the customers wishes. We might think the customer has made the wrong decision, but it's still their decision and they won't thank you for subverting it.

Another context that we talked about was when you see someone else about to do the "wrong thing". You should definitely draw attention to the problem as you see it, but if the person goes ahead anyway, should you do anything to protect the project from the outcome? My position is that you should not - you should let the project suffer the consequences (again excepting traumatic outcomes). It's possible that your fears won't be realised, in which case you'll learn something. If they are realised, the project team will learn something (including perhaps to pay more attention to your advice) and may be able to avoid similar problems in future. If you just fix it, then what the project team will learn is that there are no negative outcomes from that behaviour, so they'll quite happily repeat, and you'll have the same personal situation later. Ad infinitum.

The same kinds of things apply to my son. I try to protect him from traumatic outcomes, but sometimes I need to let him get hurt (physically or emotionally) so that he learns not to repeat a behaviour.

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