Isn’t life really about learning? Seriously; life evolved through the magnificent process where certain attributes proved better than others; led through phylogeny, incremental changes that best suit the environment persist. Of the trillions of adaptations within the tree of life only a few could survive the pressure of the environment. In a way, It was the existence of failure which permitted success of an individual attribute (although I think the platypus might have gotten lucky). The persistence of well evolved attributes is the epitome of learning. So who’s to argue with Mother Nature? How else would you know if something was or is successful without the perspective of failure?
As an Information Technology Manager for over 20 years, mostly in the Federal government, I have seen epic waste of talent and resources. A few years ago I was in charge of a large enterprise wide upgrade of an email system. I won’t disclose the organization or agency, but it was a very dysfunctional environment. I knew the minute, or should I say the 18 months it took to do the procurement, the project was doomed. It wasn’t doomed because of a lack of talent or money. It was doomed because the environment did not allow for any failure whatsoever. I won’t bore with the technical details that proved to be difficult but let me just say that we were required to upgrade the system while the system remained running. This was a bonafide requirement as the office had Incredible data availability needs. Basically we were not allowed to shut the system down in any fashion for any time.
This single constraint made the project extremely complex. The leadership insisted that there would be no downtime for us to test configuration settings. We needed to test things like mailbox migration, security and new storage limits. Another way to look at it; we needed to know, through incremental failure, what worked and what didn’t. But the bureaucracy and policies constrained us and inevitably our only option was to learn in the production environment. For anyone who’s ever managed technology this should make you cringe. It was our reality and the subject of many heated conversation over beers.
As time went on the project slipped to the right and customers became unhappy. The leadership reacted in the only way Federal managers know, they threw money, people and “new ideas” at the project. I worked every angle I could to get buy-in to bring parts of the environment down. I was simply ineffective against the entrenched policy makers. It wasn’t long before the messaging environment crashed.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the environment being down (known in the organization as a SEV-0) provided the correcting emphasis to look at failure a little differently. There was tremendous finger pointing and in the end the leadership fired the contractor and scolded the project team. It took two additional years for the office to complete the upgrade; with tons of unscheduled failures.
With evolution, failure is baked in — It is part of the game. In fact, it is the game. Accepting failure as a known constant, learning can take place faster. Fail faster, learn faster. But the federal government is obviously different. I can not put my finger on the reason (although “politics” is a little too easy an answer), there is disdain toward small failures and overreaction to large. In my particular case, I would have fared far better if we were allowed to learn early, adjust attributes and build an enterprise better suited to pressure of the environment.
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