Eat Your Failure: Agile is Failure Absorbent

(This column is posted at, Steve’s LinkedIn, and Steve’s Tumblr)

(My continuing “Agile Life” column, where I use Scrum for a more balanced and productive life continues).
So let’s be honest, May was not my greatest month. Sure, I got things done but plotting my first novel took over twice the time expected and isn’t done yet. I only wrote 84% of what I wanted for the minibooks. I had to hold off many small project due to time an illness, business, and allergies.

I honestly felt bad. I had failed. That was bad, right?

Wrong. Agile methods are about responding to change and learning. They are not failure avoidant, they are failure absorbent; failure is expected, learned from, and worked into the process.

OK I still feel bad, but I don’t have to – that’s not Agile – it’s just my own neuroses. I’m not used to absorbing failure – nor are many other people or groups.

Most organizations are failure avoidant – and because of that they fail even more. Nothing ensures learning slowly, having neurotic relations, continuing the blame game, and adapting poorly than being failure avoidant. I’m sure you’ve been in failure avoidant situations – it’s bad at work and worse with yourself.

Failure absorbency is a major part of Agile philosophy and methods. The goal of Agile is to be able to respond quickly, using communication and responsiveness to change to allow you to deliver work faster and better. Agile expects failure. Agile practices eat failure and use it to become stronger.

The only thing to feel bad about is not responding to failure appropriately. Though I suppose that’s a separate failure you can then respond appropriately too.

When you fail in Agile you should review, learn, and figure out how to adapt and do better. It’s not what you did wrong, it’s what you learned and how you adapt. Eat your failure.

So what did I learn:

  • TOO MANY ANKLEBITERS: I assigned too many small tasks that I didn’t need or I should have done to “clear the plate.”
  • TIMESHIFTING:Some of these tasks could have been timeshifted better – there’ a few cases where I just figured I’d get to them.
  • TOO PACKED: I had no room for disruption baked into my plans despite having so much going on yet having so much free time.
  • POOR PLANNING DUE TO OVERCONFIDENCE: I didn’t plan out the novel plotting well at all as noted; it may be this novel is going to be far less timebound and far more about iteration.
  • OVERCOMMITMENT: The Novel didn’t just take longer, I had to literally “back my mind out” of work that held up my imagination. It’s like writing code before the design research is done – an then you don’t want to change the code.

Now how do I deal with this?

  • Review tasks better to make sure I really need to do them – success if often measured in what’s not done or needed.
  • For truly new project, like my novel, watch my time estimates on early stages and give myself space to do them write. Also, don’t overdesign/overdetail or not back out.
  • Get a better sense of my velocity so I don’t overload myself (which I think I’ll have end of this month).
  • Better pace myself, which is part of velocity.
  • It’s probably better to find I have spare time in a sprint then to overload myself – If I have spare time I can start taking items out of my backlog. Again focus on what’s needed.
  • I’ll review going to two week sprints in July – it’d make me much more adaptable.  However I think long term my life will evolve from Agile to Kanban.
  • I still run too many projects at once – the Minibooks being a classic example of trying to do them over time, and that writing can just turn into a distraction.

So that’s how I adsorb failure – getting better.

This has made me even rethink how I’ve handled failure in my life. I tend to avoid it – then embrace it when it happens. Maybe I could just be a bit less avoidant early on.

– Steve