Category: Human

Importance of controlled failures


We try to avoid failures as much as possible. But there are certain situations where failures can be beneficial.

For example take a situation where things are not going according to the best possible path but it it is beyond your control to take it back to the correct path. There are few alternatives in such situations.

  1. One option is to fight all out and try to get it back to the track.
  2. Second option is to let it go & brace for the disaster.
  3. The third option is to led the way towards a small & controlled failure.

The purpose of this discussion is to explore the third option. First let’s look at the first & second options. If you use the first option & fight with all guns blazing, it would require significant amount of energy and time. After all it may be that you are fighting a losing war.The second option can lead to a total disaster & the chance of revival can be slim.  

What is a “Controlled failure”?

If you look at the third option next, there are many advantages. My definition of controlled failure is that you let certain variables to fail. Those variables are carefully selected as well as limited.

For example consider a situation where a project team is pushed to deliver under unrealistic deadlines over and over. You are trying to explain to the decision makers about the risk but you hear back every-time “our customers demands it and without meeting those demands company will not survive“. There are many variables to this situation. Examples are “Code quality”, “Functional quality”, “Developer burnout”, “Penalty of missed deadlines”, etc.

So in a controlled failure you open only the cards (variables) you want to play. For example it can be that you select the “Code quality” variable and let a internal deadline to be missed. (Normal option would be to ask the developers to work in another weekend). This can lead to decision makers to realize the importance of adjusting unrealistic deadlines and start working on them. 

The importance

The important aspect of controlled failure is the word “Controlled“. The failure should be such that it does not lead to significant loss and should be possible to control the situation through non-failed variables.

Some further examples for situation where controlled failure may help

  1. The request to improve code quality being ignored for a period of time
  2. Request for full regression cycle being ignored
  3. Certain teams are not preparing for the sprint demo & review & come up with all the excuses
  4. In personal life example, kids are ignoring the instruction to go to bed early

The natural tendency of  a leader is to work with the situation and get it back to track. It takes some considerable energy and situations where there are multiple of such scenarios. It requires leader’s heroic effort & it is not a sustainable strategy.

So setting up a controlled fire can help the situation!

For example connecting to above situations

  1. Let the next change request to over-run (than working late to finish on time) due to brittle code
  2. Let the staging release (before the production release) to have bugs which are noticed by the customer
  3. Let an important demo to fail
  4. Let the kids to take their own time to go to bed but get them to wake up exactly to the time you want next day

Concluding thoughts

Failures are good on long run if you learn the lesson out of it. A controlled failure will help to learn the lesson and “Control failures” are an important tool in management.

Eisenhower Box

4I was reading this post Eisenhower box from James Clear. (James Clear is one of my favorite bloggers and he posts wonderful posts every Tuesday & Friday)

Eisenhower was the 34th president of USA and he has used a simple technique to prioritize the work. Many of us struggle to prioritize work and the method used by Eisenhower (called Eisenhower box or Eisenhower matrix) would help us a great deal. It is so simple and just knowing it would help us a great deal.

Urgent vs important

This is the corner stone for Eisenhower’s method. According this classification, urgent things are not always important.

  • Urgent: These are the work which we need to act immediately. Examples are attending to a frustrated a customer, helping a colleague who is struggling on a piece of work, answering a phone call from unknown number, etc.
  • Important: These are the things which contribute to long term vision, objectives or achievements. For example a retrospective meeting is an important piece of work.

We normally don’t recognize or differentiate the urgency vs importance while working. The key to productivity lies on differentiating the above two aspects and we should treat & prioritize work based on them.

What Eisenhower box tells us is to categorize our work based on the above two factors. So it creates a 2X2 matrix. There is a guideline given on how to treat each box.

Eisenhower box


The above diagram is self explanatory and I am sure this can make a huge difference in our way of working and productivity.

Reference :

Photo credit:

Everything looks like a failure in the middle …

DohWe take decisions to improve ourselves from where we are now. This is common to any significant decision we make in our life. It can be that when we start a new job, new project or even when we migrated to a new country, we expect things to be better than it used to be.

At the start everything is fine and things are happening according to the script.

The new job offers a lot of learning and able to catch up on the technologies/opportunities we missed previously. The new country offers a lot better infrastructure, services, facilities, opportunities, etc. Everything is perfect and positive energy is overflowing. We are thrilled about the decisions we made.

After this initial period, not everything goes well. Things are not folding to the way it should be.

Now we feel that new job does not provide enough challenges or it is not going as per way it was described initially. The new country does not provide the value system which we used to be and we see negative aspects of the new culture. This is the stage where the reality takes over and the negativity slowly emerge. Then we ask ourselves  “Why an earth I took that decision?” We get frustrated on the situation very often and sometime curse ourselves for the decisions we took. We wonder whether there is a second chance where we can correct ourselves. In some situations we goes to an extent to label ourselves as a “failure” or a “looser”.

There is one thing we miss in this situation/context. This is not a situation which we need to get frustrated. This is not a situation where we should label ourselves as a “failure”. This is not a situation which is specific to us. This is a situation which happens to every individual, every organization and it happens every-time and everywhere.

There are many scientific and social research on this perticular subject. There is one such law called Kanter’s Law. It was developed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Professor. In this law, she argues that we feel “Everything looks like a failure in the middle“. She further goes to explain how one should overcome this middle period. The advice she gives is that “Recognize the struggle of middles, give it some time, and a successful end could be in sight.

Further details can be found out from her post in HBR

Another relevant piece of work is called “The Satir Change Model” developed by Virginia Satir, an American author and a family therapist. It is a five stage model that describe how the change happens from one stable position to another over the period of time. You can see that it is not a straight line and there are many ups and downs in the middle. And most notable thing is that the performance in the middle period is far worst than where it started or before the change.

Satir change model


The lesson to lean here is that as humans we feel that things will “progressively improve” over the period of time. What we don’t realize is that it does not happen in reality and there is struggle in the middle. World is not linear by any means for things to happen in straight. We need to have patience and push through this middle period.


Further reading