Failing well

In my last post here, I wrote, “Barring the unexpected, we’re due to launch a pair of big projects at work tonight.” Well, the unexpected occurred, and the projects didn’t launch that night. The two stayed under wraps, in the works again, until about a week later. Then we tried again, with success.

The digital-media industry has talked a terrific deal in recent years of not just allowing but celebrating failure. Accepting the lessons failing teaches supposedly makes us less afraid to explore new ideas, to take our chances, to experiment, to find excitement and enrichment in learning together.

But we — as me, as we NPR, as an industry — still worry too much about creating the perfect something. When we give examples of how we have accepted failure, we often talk about the little things, the attempts that didn’t matter, efforts that were disappointments more than failures.

So, it’s healthy every once in while to have an out-and-out fail.

Say you failed when you tried to release your biggest code changes in four years. You started around 8 at night on a Sunday, just after staff finished processing the last audio from your last show of the day. Around 11, you realized things were running too slowly and jumped into trying different ways to get things right. At 1:30, you understood you’d never be done by the first show of the morning, and you had to reverse course. You found the course back wasn’t as easy as expected. You hit road block after road block until one lucky break lets you revive the publishing systems at 5:30 in the morning, just in time for dawn and first audio from Morning Edition.

Say “you” in this scenario wasn’t just you personally but a team of a dozen — engineers, designers, journalists (like me), and a set of talented others — executing the efforts of an extended team of a few dozen, many of whom have hundreds of thousands of users arriving throughout the next day.

Say you failed.

But you knew your bosses would have your back. You knew you had done all the testing you knew to do ahead of time. You knew when to raise flags; you knew when to reverse course; you knew when adjust and to recognize the lucky break when it broke. You knew to keep calm, to talk or not talk as necessary, to lighten or concern, to ask questions and explain potential next moves, to take your time, to breath, to think about your next shot.

You would feel good leaving the newsroom as the sun came up. You would know you had given the effort your everything, no matter who you were in the night’s fail scenario: the developer, the designer, the product owner, the engineer,  the tester, the scrum master, each having responsibility in part. Attempting had become recovering. Preparing had become learning.

It’s not going to happen tonight, we emailed everyone before going home. But it wasn’t an awful night. we said. Really. We had lost sleep. But no one had lost their cool. The conversation all night had been smart and kind of beautiful, to see so many different good minds grappling at once with the troubles at hand and with the array of consequences shortly beyond them.

A week or so later, much more wrestling complete, the next try works. You go home at two in the morning. You know you have been successful that night, but now all the eyes arrive on what you’ve launched. What you’ve done is imperfect, for sure. Every launch has its issues, wrong directions and coming fixes. You are imperfect. We are imperfect. I am imperfect.

Together or alone, we learn lessons from our failures. We learn, and we learn to try again. The new industry thinking on failing is right. But what we too often forget to recall is that the dawn doesn’t know our jobs. The nights where we fail well and the nights where we succeed are so similar. Another year ends, and the new year begins. We are the only constants, waking and pressing for the unknown, coming home to rest and renew.

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