Mistakes: The Core of Agility

slapping_foreheadI don’t know about you, but I really enjoy listening to TED talks. I’ve started listening to the TED Radio Hour podcast produced by NPR in which they pull together several related TED talks. They recently did a show on Making Mistakes. This is a great collection of talks all about making mistakes and being vulnerable. It’s all about accepting that we are human and we will occasionally make a mistake, and we should embrace that. We need to be able to talk about our mistakes, not be proud of them, but accept them and talk about them so that we can get better. Also, mistakes and vulnerability are the birthplace of creativity and innovation, so if we aren’t willing to take risks, make mistakes, and own those mistakes, we can’t really be innovative.

Being agile really requires accepting this. We value people and interactions over processes and tools. In other words, we should accept that we are humans and will make mistakes, we shouldn’t try to put processes in place that will keep any mistakes from being made. Instead embrace that mistakes may occur and when they do, have a culture and environment that encourages everyone to talk about the mistakes and learn from them.

Agile values continuous improvement which also requires being able to discuss our mistakes and learn from them. That is why we have retrospectives and also why the general rule is no managers in the retrospective. We want this to be a safe environment where people can talk about mistakes. If you have the mythical manager and team where this is possible with the manager in the room, then have the manager in the room…but I’ve never seen that situation. Even when I was the manager and thought I had that sort of relationship with the people that reported to me, I would still find there were things being held back in retrospectives because I was there.

Agile values accepting change, even late in development. We do this because we accept that we don’t know everything up front. We accept that when we try to plan everything out, we have likely made a mistake. Maybe our mistake is simply assuming our market will remain constant for the life of our project. So we need to ready to adjust to that mistake, we need to accept that change.

All that being said, of course it isn’t easy. We all struggle with it. We all want to be accepted and liked and so we all have shame. We don’t want to admit things about ourselves for fear that others won’t accept us. Often our mistakes fall into this category. I struggle with this just as much as the next person, but when a team can get to a point that they can do this, they can have amazing results. If you are part of an agile team and you want to take your team to the next level, start thinking about how you can be more vulnerable. Have you made mistakes you can discuss with your team in order to improve? If you are a Scrum Master or leader, how can you foster this in your team? How can you help create a safe environment to encourage this vulnerability? Do you have regular retrospectives? Do team members feel safe in those retrospectives? Can you lead by example?

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  • Yup – but making mistakes is probably not the best term for a more general phenomenon – learning by trial and error. It includes oopses and hypothesis testing, possibly informally.

    The larger context is that SW Dev. is more like R&D than manufacturing – so we celebrate the discovery of what doesn’t work. In addition, coding is so error prone that pairing is most valuable to catch errors as is beautifully described by Richard Sheridan of Menlo Innovations.

    And, as you said, retrospectives are for the team process improvement over and above the evolving product requirements as their details emerge.

    • Good point Jay, thanks for the feedback!

  • @Jay – I like your reference to experimentation and trial and error. Let’s change the focus to learning and discovery. Something all R&D folks should embrace.

    @Matt – another good post. You made me think about a post I wrote on failure. So if mistakes are learning…then failure is learning as well. Or they are IF we reflect and focus on our learning via reflection and continuous improvement.

    http://rgalen.com/agile-training-news/2012/5/28/the-agile-project-managerfail-now-as-a-strategy.html

    As an aside, I think we are too afraid of “mistakes” and “failure”. I’d rather we embrace them then fear them.

    Keep up the good work,
    Bob.

    • Thanks Bob! I have to agree we are too afraid of making mistakes and always feel like we “have to get it right” when there is almost never only 1 “right” answer. I’ve actually got another post in the works along those lines as well.

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