Redefining failure in IT

Redefining failure in IT

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Traditionally, failure has been something to avoid and downplay in professional life. At DIRECTV, I inherited an IT culture where fear of failure was sometimes stifling innovation and producing major hurdles in a few significant projects. To move beyond that dynamic and show people how failure has a place in business – that failure can even be the desirable outcome in some cases – we decided to use gamification.

We called our experience F12, which is short, in part, for Fearless, Focused, Failure. It’s a sort of 12-step social sharing program to get over the fear of failure, and in building it we created an application that allows our IT team to take content and build a game-like experience. It includes videos, a quiz, a whitepaper, and other elements. To participate you’ve got to complete tasks to get bonus codes then follow paths to get badges and points along the way. It has been so successful among our 900 IT employees we’re releasing it to 2,500 more people this year. What it’s teaching, in short, is that it’s okay to make mistakes in IT as long as you quickly learn from them and move on.   

And what change has F12 produced in our culture? Rather than trying to deliver a perfect product every time, we are now aiming to fail fast and early. A big problem plaguing IT projects is that of escalating commitment. These are projects that to the naked eye are doomed for big failure, but the organization has too much invested to stop. Research shows that the fear of failure is a much stronger emotion that the pleasure of victory. Organizations spend good money after bad. By de-demonizing failure it becomes easier to see these projects and stop them earlier. It doesn’t make it painless but allows for a more logical versus an emotional decision. The whole F12 experience was not really something we planned, but something that evolved as a cultural shift to cast failure in the appropriate light.  

Pulling more success out of failure

Remember that from a business standpoint we’ve been managing a desire for perfection.  Today people must get comfortable with saying, “Look, we’re going to launch it when it’s 25% done or 50% done or 75% done, and then iterate on it,” versus when it’s 100% done. This has led us to use alpha and beta pre-launches when it adds value to the end result, even if we’re only launching subsets of capability. And it’s a huge change for us.

Failure is only one word but it has come to stand for a huge set of diverse outcomes. Helpful failure isn’t about screwing up in the end. It’s about learning early and not being afraid to raise the flag as soon as you know. In research, 90% of people’s time is trying and failing and learning yet they don’t think failure is a waste of time. Failure at the beginning of a process can be a real positive and a teaching mechanism. It’s okay as long as you learn from it. Which is why we added a ‘failure vault’ to F12 this year. When we start a new project a pre-mortem is conducted to manage the applicable learnings from the vault.

The last thing you want is an organization that’s afraid to pull the plug or to stop the conveyer.  They have to recognize that this can be a good action. Half the battle is making them feel good about doing so. That’s a large part of how you turn failure into a positive.

Read Sven's article, "What should evolve: IT departments or IT executives?"

Sven Gerjets is Senior Vice President of Information Technology at DIRECTV and is responsible for delivering the full lifecycle of IT business value at DIRECTV starting with business solution definition through delivery into production. Gerjets leads a 1,000+ person globally-distributed IT organization responsible for development, test, project management and business analysis.

Sven Gerjets is EVP and Chief Technology Officer at Mattel. Previously, Gerjets served as the President and Chief Product Officer at Colorado-based software company, where he supported the company’s business development efforts as well as product strategy for’s award-winning digital transformation platform (DxP).

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