Why the way we talk about failure can help us kill projects, for the better

We all hear a lot about the benefits of “failing fast” and “failing forward”, but just a little bit of time searching online will paint a very different picture of how people actually feel about failing at work, especially when it comes to killing projects. We can say that it’s good to fail, but having a project fail or end up getting scrapped can have a lot of really negative consequences. But according to Astro Teller from Google’s “moonshot factory”, called X, being willing to kill projects is one of the best things that you and your teammates can do.

“Here’s our moonshot blueprint. Number one: we want to find a huge problem that affects many millions of people. Number two: we want to find or propose a radical solution for solving that problem. And then number three: there has to be some reason to believe that the technology for such a radical solution could actually be built.”

– Astro Teller, Google X

Once they’ve done that, they try to find a way to kill their project.

Seriously.

Astro Teller, onstage at TED

Find the Achilles Heel First

Every day, team members at X come to work and look for the weakest part of their plan. Whether it’s discovering that the prototype will be cost prohibitive or realizing that the user isn’t going to behave the way they predicted or something else, Teller is encouraging people to examine their carefully constructed plans, and look for the places that they are most likely to break.

“[We] Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. Get excited and cheer “Hey! How are we going to kill our project today?”

– Astro Teller, Google X

When we started reading more about killing projects, a lot of the articles framed it as something that only happens when things go bad. One article listed a bunch of signs of a project that needs to be shut down, including team dysfunction, apathy, shifting blame to others, and a lack of leadership. But that’s not what Teller is talking about when he’s encouraging his teams to kill their projects.

Enthusiastic Skepticism

Teller doesn’t encourage us to watch a colleague give up on a project and then be happy that it failed; he’s encouraging us to take risks on our projects and employ enthusiastic skepticism alongside our optimism to tackle problems. This model of encouraging people to kill projects isn’t based on the assumption that projects are failing, and it isn’t based on passing judgement. It’s centred on the idea that failure is part of the growth, and that discovering things that won’t work can be just as important as discovering things that will. Teller also points out that encouraging people to fail doesn’t work if it’s perceived as just talk.

“You cannot yell at people and force them to fail fast. People resist. They worry.”

– Astro Teller, Google X

His model is focused on creating an environment where people don’t feel like they have to make their first attempt at a solution work, and they aren’t worried about getting in trouble if their project doesn’t work out.

“Teams kill their ideas as soon as the evidence is on the table because they’re rewarded for it. They get applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from their manager [...]. They get promoted for it. We have bonused every single person on teams that end their projects.”

– Astro Teller, Google X

Shift your perspective

Teller acknowledges that this isn’t an easy shift because taking risks and trying big things out makes people uncomfortable. Killing projects can also be hard when you realize that there’s a flaw in what you thought was a great plan. Especially when you have become invested in an idea or project, starting over or taking it apart can feel personal, even when it’s not. But Teller and the teams at X have been able to learn a lot from their failures, and this is something that most people agree on when it comes to killing projects. No matter the reason that a project gets killed, conducting a post-mortem can be critical in coming up with a new solution to a problem. The post-mortems can also be used to inform solutions to other problems and encourage you to look at things in a different way. As Teller points out “Sometimes shifting your perspective is more powerful than being smart”.

Watch Teller’s full TED Talk on the benefits of celebrating failure here.

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