Ask HN: Do you celebrate failures at work?

    Ask HN: Do you celebrate failures at work?

    The whole premise of this question is kinda backwards.

    If a dev messes up an implementation detail, that’s a bug. It could be a small bug, could be a big bug, or could be a forced bug caused by contradictory requirements. Usually if it’s a big bug then it’s also probably the requirements. So then now there’s at least one more owner of that bug besides the dev. Then you dig in further and find that the requirements are bad due to other seeming organizational problems, etc. so there are even more owners of the bug…

    Natural to ask at this point when is a bug a feature? What is failure anymore if you managed to redefine things and embrace that there was no organizational dysfunction after all and that the nature of the problem revealed some deeper truth about how to solve it?

    These are not abstract questions. What I’m saying is that work is just as much a process of discovery as it is a process to get some expected result. When the expectations have to change that’s not failure, so there’s really no such thing as failure and nothing to really celebrate or blame anyone about. If you’re working then there’s progress and that’s all that really matters.

    If people can’t keep up with expectations it’s completely arbitrary to decide to either adjust expectations or fire people. That’s a matter of running the business, not a judgment one way or the other of the work that was done. This is the reason they say to not take it personally. It’s not just a bunch of bull to make you feel better. It’s simply irrelevant.

    This is an interesting question. I always am telling my kids: “If everything you try works, you aren’t trying hard enough.” Because they tend towards doing the easy thing so it’ll be a success, but most of life’s interesting things happen at the intersection of failure. But, on the other hand, I don’t really want to enable their doing of totally asinine things, the number of views on Jake Paul’s videos not withstanding…

    We don’t exactly celebrate failure, but:

      1) We have a culture that accepts "failures happen". People screw up, sometimes badly.
      2) Imperative to this is a culture of ownership. You hide failures, your job is at risk. You own it, go public, get help, and all is well. Well, not exactly well, since there was a failure, but you get the picture.
      3) Blameless post-mortems (hate that term, nobody died)
      4) We do have a tongue-in-cheek slack channel for those folks who have caused a "p0", i.e. most-severe-breakage

    I’d not want to work somewhere that didn’t have the above; it’s just part of being a mature organization.

    #4 does more good than most realize. If you can’t joke around about it then you aren’t really comfortable with it. And we all must be comfortable with the potential to cause problems occasionally. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

    I’d also add that high-performing teams require psychological safety (e.g. mistakes don’t get punished), the research is pretty clear. So punishment is explicit blocking of high-performance.

    The only place I ever worked at that “celebrated failure” (their own words) was an overgrown startup with no customers that was unable to ship a single product.

    Now I find the expression almost repulsive. Failure is part of work, not punishing failure is ok, celebrating it by saying “we learned so much” is a serious company smell for me.

    I worked somewhere that did it and it was completely performative.

    A culture of experimentation, which as a requirement leads to failures, does not need to celebrate failure. That’s like cargo cult mentality, thinking that the failure itself is causally doing something good.

    The most popular ritual I’ve seen for celebrating failure is firing people. I can see a case for the company declaring bankruptcy being considered a ritual.

    I’m trying to imagine a world where failure is seen as a good thing – it implies risks were taken, and without risk there is unlikely to be progress. I suppose AirBnB is a bit of a poster child for move fast and get sued later so that sort of fits.

    It depends on the level of the failure. Some failures are minor problems that can be easily fixed with minimal impact on the business. Some failures are colossal and can drive the company out of business.

    I wish the consequences for failure were uniform across various organizations. Some companies will fire you for minor infractions. Others let failures grow because they are never addressed. Government is notorious for having negative incentives (failures are often rewarded).

    One of my favorite movie quotes is from Ray’s character (played by Dan Aykroyd) in Ghostbusters when they were fired from the university: “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.”

    What do you think that make companies firing people as a first choice, as opposed to accepting the associated risk as part of the learning process?

    Used to at Amazon, those guys had a great engineering onboarding that was nothing BUT failures and anecdotes about them. It was really memorable and humbling to see some great engineers share where they went wrong.

    “Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?”

    – Thomas John Watson Sr., IBM

    I’ll say there are ways to embrace it, but celebrating it, just that phrase, I suspect will turn off the suits who might misinterpret it.

    Anyway, the way I’ve seen it be embraced:

    * healthy incident management culture with postmortems

    * teams giving internal talks/writing blogs on biggest goof ups

    * coworkers buying you shit if they break something. Mind: this wasn’t required, just something people did it because they felt bad. I’ve received many beers/whiskeys this way

    I’ve heard it said that in Japan management seeks to fix the problem when there’s a failure rather than fixing the blame. I have no idea if that’s true of the Japanese but I know it’s true in America. And once the blame is fixed then the person blamed is ejected from the organization and that’s considered a fix to the problem. So why would anyone volunteer to talk about failure when that is the status quo?

    Any culture where a failure means somebody needs to be fired is a toxic culture where people will be unwilling to take any risks whatsoever. That’s not normal and is a sign that the company’s future isn’t going to be very promising.

    At my past job yes, at the current one it’s swept under the rug. I even know someone that got fired for doing an error. (edit: and actually most teams seem to struggle with a lot of technical debt)

    In my experience, you can own your mistakes by buying breakfast for the team the next day. I agree that this is different from a failure. But deleting your own account, or the production database, sending a useless email to the whole company, etc … can all be redeemed with a breakfast, as long as it means that you own your mistake in good faith, and that you will do your best not to repeat it.
    (Disclosure: I’m french, we have a thing for breakfast and pain -bread)

    Culture in a lab I worked at was to bring donuts in when you messed up. I don’t think this is “celebrating” failure, so much as a fun way to say sorry for messing up.

    to be really honest, never had a failure at work. not boasting, simply never happened.

    oh no, i can remember. i once restarted a trading server process that could not easily be restarted once it crashed – crap code, not written by me, which caused quite a few problems. but that’s about it.

    “Do you celebrate failures at work?”

    I don’t. But I’m sure my bosses celebrate my failures since it makes their decision of who to give a bad rating to very easy.

    Usually passing the buck, playing the blame game, and most of all never changing anything and then being surprised, shocked, I mean, really shocked, that it keeps happening.

    Traditionally I embrace failure by taking a few weeks for my own hobbies before I start looking for a new job after they fire me.

    I run a 20+ person tech company.

    People screw up and make mistakes all the time.

    I’d have no employees if I fired everyone after every mistake. I’m almost certain the same is true of virtually every company on earth.

    What really matters is how people handle themselves and others when failures occur, which is what the OP is asking about. Very valid question. Unfortunately a lot of low quality responses in the comments so far.

    From my POV, mistakes/failures are a fact of life, you can’t avoid them. So instead, you have to manage the risk of failures/mistakes and work to reduce that risk until it’s at a risk level where management is comfortable. At in IC level, that probably means doing retrospects on major failures, why they occured, how to avoid in the future… and most importantly, focus the retros on the -process- rather than the -people-. Processes can be easily and quickly improved.. “this slipped through QA because it’s not on our QA checklist” compared to “Bob is a bad coder, it’s his fault”

    Many companies try to signal that it’s okay to try new things by celebrating them even when they aren’t successful. I’ve been on teams like that. Nobody is happy about the failure itself, but the idea, effort, and commitment that was shown, even if it was not successful, is worth rewarding. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, a ship in harbor is safe, etc. I think this is pretty much an inarguably healthy thing to do for a company that wants to keep morale up and encourage experimentation.

    I’m sorry to hear that, it seems to me that failure has never been an option where you worked. How was it possible in your org to innovate if they don’t embrace failures?

    The only way to innovate is to keep trying new things until one of them succeeds. Failure is inherent to innovation.

    Innovation isn’t valuable or necessary for most businesses. Optimization, refinement, and careful evaluation of legal consequences get you a lot farther.

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