The skill of failing – lessons learned

not for students for graduates for beginners for professionals not for executives

 

Our society celebrates victories and success. These successes are often celebrated after project milestones. But nobody likes to talk about the stories behind them. The story of careful planning, focusing for goals, fighting against all odds and failing multiple times. I think failing is a very important skill and hugely underestimated as a soft skill. I consider it as the one of the most important skill for research and development.

Fear the fear

Most people fear failing.

How often did you fail in life? Like,really fail. I failed so often. I failed at exams, I failed in experiments, I failed at work. And I am still quite ok. Failing was a skill that I learned throughout the years of my demanding studies in universities. To be honest, this prepared me quite well for my later working life.

I remember my final theoretical physics exam. Final physics exams in Germany are very long and intense. They cover at least 3 semesters of lessons with 6 working hours per week. I learned around 4 months straight and when the day came, the professor asked me and on the very first answer he did not like my wording. In fact, he hated it and he drilled so much into this point that I got confused and broke and, well, failed in the end. I was not able to take the pressure in this situation, so I had to repeat the exam again. And maybe, just maybe, I did not like the topic …

This has been my major fail in the university which pushed me back around half a year. Still, I recovered timewise and worked out a strategy to overcome my fear. Because failing is about fear and fear is the worst advisor.

It blocks your mind and your passion. It is about a feeling of risk avoidance, a internal drive to run. Still, winning is about taking risks. Success means that someone at some point has taken a risk and whether or not he feared it or not, this person carried on. and made something out of the challenge.

Failing for beginners

Starting a new job is demanding and youngsters do not know the rules of the particular company or branch they are working in. It does not matter how much you will prepare yourself, at some point you will do something that is out of expectation of your boss or the customer or your own quality level because you do not know it better. Just go along.

Making errors is important to find out how the company behaves under stress and how their intrinsic culture is. A good company culture embrasses a style of work that does not punish failing but teaches you a method of how to use failing to get a benefit – at least to some degree.

Also, you will learn to risk more if the environment is suitable. This can help you to achieve goals faster if you are lucky but you have at least to learn how to handle risks. So before taking a risk, you should at least undergo a risk assessment to help you judge which way you should go.  

In the next section, I will introduce failing in the context of developing a system for a customer.

Failing in RnD

A system design which failed.

Let us say there is a system that we want to design with a project. The success of the project can be determined by reaching the targets or values within the multidimensional specification of the system. For the start, let us consider a system made out of two parameters. Due to different fluctuations in process, manufacturing, component fluctuation and so on, the system design might cover all that you see in figure 1 in the yellow circle. The first design however matched the red cross and actually failed because it did not fulfill the expectations.

From a system design perspective, we have to see the gap that was not met in the parameter 1 and 2 and find better limits, methods and processes to come into a state that is within the blue circle. We can call this step iteration and the final design then success because we meet our systems expectations. 

However, a very important institution to deal with errors are so called “lessons learned” which I like to talk about in the next part.

Lessons learned

Lessons learned are important to avoid unfavourable aims.

Lesson learned (cards) are one key feature of sustainable development. Sometimes, development or projects run into situations which could have been avoidable if certain information was known beforehand. In development, this can lead to design rules which again deny certain areas of system designs. For example, in our discussed case a design rule would forbid the red area because in a previous project, it has been seen that this is an unfavourable design room.

Still, this might not lead to the success of meeting expectations but the design room might get smaller and the chance to get closer to customer expectations and maybe take just shorter iteration steps gets bigger.

Thus, lessons learned are a crucial part to comply with the ISO 9001 standard (affiliate link) which demands a knowledge management system for achieving rising project quality. 

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