Make room for intelligent failure, Deloitte exec says

Dive Brief:

  • The shifts brought about by the digital age calls for experimentation, but employees won’t feel enabled to experiment on the job unless they feel safe to fail, said Jonathan Smart, partner, enterprise agility at Deloitte, speaking Tuesday at the DevOps Enterprise Summit.
  • New ways of working are “difficult, fearful” and call for teams to relearn their skills, making it crucial for leaders to become role-models for people they lead, said Smart. “You’ll get things wrong, and that’s part of this journey.” 
  • Organizations navigating change will require leaders who are capable of exhibiting courage and vulnerability, traits of behavior that staff can then emulate.

Dive Insight:

Organizations must contend with risk as they contort and adapt to the new contexts,  alongside technology changes such as the introduction of automation, long-term distributed work or adoption of new software platforms. Risk becomes an unavoidable part of seeking innovation. 

Though experimentation is associated with an agile mentality, the concept of failure clashes with executives’ risk tolerance amid crimped technology budgets. Approving the adoption of new technologies or deployment of in-house solutions must promise cost-cutting benefits or operational enhancements. 

As part of DevOps processes, rapid iteration is encouraged. The model promotes transparency and collaboration in software development, two traits that can spread throughout the company.

But instilling an agile mindset within the technology organization is a custom process — one that evaluates conditions that come into play for an organization and addresses critical bottlenecks. 

What is known is that employees are best equipped to respond to the changes ahead when companies foster a sense of psychological safety, said Smart, citing Google’s Project Aristotle

“What that means is the ability for people to say, ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I’m not sure,’ or ‘I’ll jump and I’ll give it a go, but I might fail,” Smart said. “That was a bigger determinant for a high-performing team than who was on the team.”

When work becomes emergent, there’s a need for “intelligent failure,” Smart said. One example was SpaceX deliberately destroying its Falcon 9 Crew Dragon capsule in order to test the launch escape process. 

“This is a great example of intelligent failure,” said Smart. “This is what we should be having more of.”