DEV Community

Cover image for How to make mistakes
Craig Nicol (he/him)
Craig Nicol (he/him)

Posted on • Originally published at craignicol.wordpress.com on

How to make mistakes

Nobody is perfect. If you tell me you’ve never made a mistake in your career, not only will I not believe you, I won’t be able to trust you.

In a safe and functioning team, we can accept our mistakes, discuss them openly, learn the lessons, improve our system, and move on.

Without that, we’re trapped not by our mistakes but by our fear of making them and our fear of the consequences when our mistakes are inevitably surfaced. And “our” mistakes quickly become “your” mistake. Not a failure of the team, not a failure of the system – the processes, the automation, the communication, and the rest – but a fault of the most vulnerable and the most exposed. “It’s always the intern.”

No one makes the intern pilot responsible for a jet plane. They start in small props and in simulators. They are supported and mentored. They are given space to practice, and to fail. Because what really makes the difference isn’t avoiding mistakes, it’s recovering from them.

Build for failure

Test-first, red-green-refactor: every new feature starts with a failing test which we then fix. Make failures part of the process, small and recoverable. Expected.

Build for backup, rollback, recovery. Test for failure continually. And recover automatically if you can.

Plan for failure

Be agile. Try new things for a day, or a week, or a year. Decide in advance what success and failure look like and monitor them. Adjust course if things aren’t working. Celebrate what you learn either way..

Move fast and bend stuff, don’t break it. Do and succeed, or do, fail and recover.

The longer a decision takes, and the more you invest in it, the harder it will be to change it, and the bigger a mistake it will become. So make it quick and don’t make it permanent.

Lead for failure

A leader needs to set a clear direction. To resolve conflicts by stating strong opinions and sticking to them. It makes conflicts easier to resolve. Until those opinions need to change. Maybe the mistake is yours, maybe it’s wrong because other things have moved on. It’s ok to change your mind, so long as you can explain it.

And then go read about why Cognitive Dissonance makes all of this so hard, by reading “Mistakes Were Made”

Discussion (0)