Published here, May 1, 2012


Musings Index

Be Honest About Failure - "Call a Spade a Spade"!

An article that caught our attention back in September was about using the word "failure". Specifically, Robert (Bob) Galen, President and Principal Consultant of RGCG, Llc., was responding to a Failure Tolerance Survey conducted by ProjectTimes by recounting an interesting discussion that he once had. Under the heading: "The Agile Project Manager-Fail NOW as a Strategy", part of his story went as follows.

"I was at a conference not that long ago speaking and sharing on various agile topics. As often happens, a young man stopped me to ask a few questions after one of my presentations. We struck up a nice conversation that eventually slipped out into the hotel corridors.

We started talking about sprint dynamics within Scrum teams and I happened to mention that I usually coach teams towards declaring their sprints a success, or … pause for meaningful effect … a failure. That we do this as part of the teams' Sprint Review, with the Product Owner being the final determinant basing it on whether the team achieved their Sprint Goal(s).

He was visibly upset with my view. He said that they (he was working at a well-known Atlanta company) had never failed a sprint. Never! They could not nor would not use that WORD in their culture. I asked him point-blank - have you ever failed a sprint? He said of course they had. Many times. But instead of using the term fail, they used the term 'challenged'. That way, stakeholders wouldn't get the wrong idea and question the skills or motives of the team.

We went round-and-round for another 10-15 minutes in our discussion, but we never really settled our differences. We simply agreed to disagree. Although it wasn't a terribly wide chasm between us, I distinctly remember walking back to my room shaking my head. I simply didn't understand the big deal about failure. About using the word. About a team saying … we failed. In my coaching practice and in my "day jobs", I've been able to steer and evolve our views so that failure is not a bad word. Failure is good. Failure is OK. Failure leads to improvement. Failure is a part of life."

In his post, Bob Galen goes on to share his thoughts about "failure" from several perspectives. In the context of his work as the Director of R&D at a successful company leading his team of Scrum Masters, and contrary to the views of the "young man" he encountered, Bob goes on to observe:

"I wholeheartedly believe that failure can actually be good for a team. I also think the role of the coach is to help a team look at their performance through two lenses. The easier of the two is the success-lens. This is the lens where you give the team positive feedback; where you tell them that they need to repeat those practices that work for them."

"But what about the failure lens? As a coach, do you provide constructive criticism? Do you show a team where they miss-stepped? Both individually and as a team? I think so. But certainly not in a malicious or heavy-handed manner. I think if you're effectively coaching a team you must explore their errors and mistakes with equal passion and energy as how you handle their successes."

By the way, Bob defines "failure", in this case a "sprint failure", as a stop-the-line incident where a team basically runs into an impediment and needs to re-plan or re-align their sprint. We are not familiar with the detailed workings of the Agile software development process, but obviously there is some push back to the blatant use of the word "failure". So Bob now uses the term "Fail Forward". This way, he wants his team to be honest with themselves and acknowledge that they failed.

But he also wants them to embrace their mistakes instead of getting defensive, blaming others or denying failure entirely. Their posture should be leaning forward, eager to try something new that will drive different and hopefully better results. They should not be afraid of failure. After all, isn't that what project risk-taking is all about?

We entirely agree. But we believe in "calling a spade a spade".

But then we thought we'd better look this phrase up to avoid any misunderstanding, and before the politically correct crowd get into a twist. But here also there appears to be misunderstanding aplenty. According to The Phrase Finder [1], to "Call a spade a spade" means "To speak plainly, to describe something as it really is."

Of course, we're fine with that.

But apparently the origins of this phrase also have unfortunate connotations. So much so that even Wikipedia has trouble with it. Indeed, Wikipedia says:

"On Wikipedia, we inevitably deal with a few difficult people. Some editors are only here to cause trouble, either by making destructive edits, by pushing an agenda, or by stirring up controversy. Others may believe so strongly that they are right that they are unable to edit collaboratively. We sometimes block or ban such users as part of the work of building and maintaining the encyclopedia. It can be tempting when dealing with such individuals to "call a spade a spade". However, doing so is not a necessary part of dealing effectively with them, because that can be a very bad idea."[2]

So there is Wikipedia's best advice. But we're still going to go on calling a spade a "spade", even if it is a shovel!

1. See accessed 4/10/12
2. See't_call_a_spade_a_spade accessed 4/10/12
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