In Complex Systems, Failing Faster Can Mean Learning More

HumanCurrent Episode 002 - The 'F'-Word (Failure, and Feedback Loops)

To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconsistency.
And though in your winter you deny your spring,
Yet spring, reposing within you, smiles in her drowsiness and is not offended.
— Kahlil Gibran, "The Farewell", from The Prophet

Inc. recently published a list of things you never want to hear your employees say. Number 10 is "just don't screw up,” and explains that avoiding failure actually demotivates employees: "Leaders who are in constant fear of the unknown and uncontrollable events in their business need to get a grip. Otherwise, your employees will wind up feeling stressed, and focusing on placating you and calming your fears rather than executing your strategy."

When faced with complexity we’re already motivated to look for the signal in the noise. But what happens when the noise is part of the co-evolution of the system? When is screwing up beneficial?

If anything’s inevitable in life, it’s uncertainty--and that even uncertainty can’t last forever. Most systems, however complex (everything from playing a simple game to raising a child) eventually show coherence and tend toward homeostasis. Maybe not on the timelines we’d prefer.

Perhaps there’s more to explore about failure and its coevolving relationship with uncertainty and innovation.

You’re probably no stranger to the concept of “fast failure,” a term alive and well in Lean development. The concept is you aim for short, iterative cycles of feedback, testing often, talking to customers often, and pivoting sooner rather than later.

What can kindergartners, marshmallows and spaghetti sticks teach us about fast failure and collaboration? A lot more than business school grads and executives, apparently. In the Marshmallow Challenge, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. Surprising lessons emerge, including that adaptability and willingness to jump in and try a strategy, fail, and try again can mean more iterations, more feedback, and a better product.

Here is where weak signal detection becomes important.

My daughter Jill loves Jenga. Why is she better at it than me? She integrates shorter feedback cycles (too much planning is boring to a five-year-old). She’s got a basic idea of what she wants to accomplish, but she’s focused on feeling for wobbliness in the blocks she’s engaged with now. This is her version of weak signal detection. She intuitively gets that because her moves in dismantling and reassembling the tower are so interdependent with mine, she can’t accurately create a long-term strategy. So she tugs at the block, feels for feedback, adjusts. She is naturally attracted to the areas where blocks give the least wobble and resistance. Jillian always wins Jenga.

When faced with complexity, try not to spend a lot of energy fearing failure. There are too many unknowns to control. Instead, quickly synthesize failure as part of the feedback. What broke? What created more of the same? Structure your projects to be flexible and to iterate, which will in turn produce faster feedback cycles. Being willing to adapt to what failure can teach you leads to greater resilience.

The HumanCurrent podcast is hosted by Angie Cross & Stacy Hale. Subscribe in iTunes or listen at