Failure Is Always An Option

I've been working with teams that feel a ton of pressure. On top of the pressure, a senior manager says these words:  “Failure is not an option.”

When managers say that, they ignore all the possibilities for success. They put their heads down, ignoring ways to manage risk.

When managers don't collaborate to manage risk, we increase the failure risk. Here's what the team is supposed to do:

  • Meet an aggressive or unrealistic date. (Often, a date the manager mandates.)
  • Deliver some large number of features. Not determined as what the customer needs, but “all” of it, a product wish list.
  • The release criteria say, “No defects.”

Why such an aggressive project, along with the statement about failure? I've seen several possibilities:

  • The manager tells the team, “The VeryExpensiveConsultant told us “agile” will give us everything we want—and when we want it. So do it!”
  • The manager says, “VeryImportantCustomer wants or needs this right away!”
  • Sometimes, managers say, “I don't care about your risks. Just deliver!”

When I hear this, I realize the manager doesn't want to hear about risks. I suspect that's because the manager doesn't see ways to manage those risks. Or, feels powerless in the face of all the pressure.

The more pressure the manager feels, the less the manager can think. The manager rolls the pressure “down” to the team and they can't think either.

Pressure situations do not help people think.

What can you do? Manage risks so the manager and the teams feel less pressure.

Manage Risks by Deciding What to NOT Do

I've already said that Agile is Not a Silver Bullet. If you overconstrain any project, it will fail.

I've asked the manager what success looks like, especially to eliminate pressure. I ask the manager to define the tradeoffs, which is why I find drivers, constraints, and floats so helpful. You might like Agile Approaches Can’t Save Impossible Projects: Fixed Cost, Scope, Date.

People—managers and customers—have to choose what to do and when. Which features or parts of features do you sequence when? That's a form of risk management.

In addition, you might want to choose experiments to run to see what you might want to offer the customers and when.

When I hear managers say, “Failure is not an option,” I suggest we/they can make choices and manage risks.

Failure Is Always an Option

One way to manage failure is to learn early. What would we have to do to learn:

The more we manage risks, the faster we can learn. The more “failure” we can tolerate because the failure is in the learning. Not the customer experience.

When everyone reframes failure as learning and risk management, we can think our way through the various problems.

It doesn't matter what we want. Failure is always an option.

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