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Safe to Fail

Imagine a meeting room filled with People watching on results of the last project. While the project manager explains why this project has not been executed successfully and the majority of invest is wasted, the people in the room get silent, looking at the highest-paid-persons mimic. It feels like everyone knows the sentence he will say, once he´ll get the chance. Just a couple of seconds later the project manager closes his presentation. And there are the words: “Who´s fault is it?”

Since we are working in a highly regulated environment, I have frequent discussions around the principle to allow failures in an agile culture while patient safety must be our primary priority. There are a lot of questions related to that topic and it seems that a majority of them tends to people believing that a classical “waterfall” type of development will be more efficient in ensuring compliance and safety of a medical device.


Of cause there is no elbowroom when it comes to patient safety. But I do not agree to the opinion that a culture of failure tolerance leads to more risky or less efficient products. The opposite is true: Where enterprise culture dictates a clime of no-failure tolerance people are afraid of speaking and highlighting issues!

It seems that today we can discuss nearly everything – diversification and inclusion topics, burnout and maddening stress levels, sabbaticals and paternity leaves. But we cannot openly discuss our failures. We still have to fear that each mistake could be the last in our carrier. Failures make vulnerable. Failures weaken the own position. Therefore, the real issue behind bad developed products are people who fear highlighting issues, failures or risks at a time where changing or correcting them might have been possible. It is necessary that we understand, that yes, there is an economic impact of failures. But the economic impact of a hidden and uncorrected failure is so much higher. And the economic chance to early learn and turn a failure into strength is not at all an option, when people fear to uncover shortcomings and issues.

“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.”- George Bernard Shaw

But why agile organizations support a better culture of failure? I believe there are four main reasons that might stand out:

First: Small incremental Steps

Fast feedback loops and small incremental steps make failures appear early and the potential negative influence of a mistake is negligible compared to the situation, when it is occupied just at the end of the project.

Second: First-time-right culture

Agile makes it much easier to implement a First-time-right culture. It is a usual practice of agile teams to pair their work and ensure real-time Feedback. Applying a four eyes principle is widely spread and a common tool in pharmaceutical quality assurance. However, instead of one doing the work and the second is controlling that this is done right, pairing ensures not just a compliance check, but also gives both developers the chance to incorporate their knowledge to the underlying task. With this, solutions and product Quality raises and the frequency of simple failures decrease. Self-organizing is the better solution for problem solving. And even from an economic standpoint Pairing seems to be the better choice since wasted time can not got back – so Cost of Delay is reduced.

Third: No hierarchical Bias

It is much easier to discuss failure in an environment, where no hierarchical bias or consequence has to be anticipated. Especially in more traditional environments with a hierarchical structure, the non-hierarchical team composition supports more open discussions.

Fourth: Continuous Improvement

Continuously searching feedback and gaps in the products or processes by frequently holding reviews and retrospectives help that developers get accustomed to discussions of potential improvements. Additionally the teams receive ongoing knowledge of people outside of the team what ensures divers input during the whole product development process.

„It’s important to celebrate your failures as much as your successes. If you celebrate your failures really well, and if you get to the motto and say, ‘Wow, I failed, I tried, I was wrong, I learned something,’ then you realize you have no fear, and when your fear goes away, you can move the world.“Sebastian Thrun

As a team leader it is my responsibility to create a safe to fail environment where people don´t fear to make fast decisions on small little steps, create experiments how to get there and test early and often, if or if not this experiment is successful. If we fail, not a big deal: We learn, adapt and move on.

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