Let me share a little secret with you – You are going to fail. You’ll have multiple failures in diverse areas in life. It’s what you do with them that predicts if you’ll be an overall success.

If you are not planning for failure, you aren’t planning for success. My point may sound like a Yogiism but I mean it. Let’s dissect it a little bit. 

This post is a two part series. Today we’ll introduce the post and talk about the first two angles. Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll post the follow up with the final two angles and some quotes that serve as good reminders.  Subscribe to my feed to be notified when that posts.


I was leaving the office yesterday for lunch and I wish I had followed Jon DiPietro‘s great blogger advice and brought my camera phone. One of the landscapers working across the street had himself stuck on a precarious ledge on his lawnmower. His partner came to the rescue as I was getting ready to head over and offer a push. When the partner got there on his own tractor he pulled out a rope from his cart of tools. He handed the rope off and pulled him up with ease. Now maybe that was actually the plan all along and it wasn’t really a potential #fail in action but at the time, I thought it was and remarked in my head, “they were ready for that.”

I know I’ve blogged a bit about this before when first starting out in posts talking about using checklists, recipes and algorithms; embracing empirical evidence; or even harnessing paranoia as a DBA but I want to zero in on failure from four angles here.

Angle #1 – Include Failing In Your Planning

The Titanic

An obvious example - Had they planned for failure on the Titanic would more have survived?

It doesn’t matter what you are doing. Think about the failure scenarios for that task or project. Talk about them with the team; write them out on a project plan even.  The amount of time, energy and paper you spend on this should change based on the complexity and scope of the project but even just a quick run down in your head of a few, “what if” scenarios will really help.

If you include failure in your plans you have three potential outcomes that I can see, can anyone see any others?

  • You Wasted Some Time – No good came of it. Those scenarios didn’t happen. You wasted the time thinking about and discussing the potential failures. (or did you?)
  • You Averted Failure – Through talking out potential failure points and poking theoretical holes in your approach, you actually realized a mistake and changed the plans.
  • You Knew What To Do When You Failed – Because you had discussed some failure paths ahead of time when presented with one that mirrored or was similar to a discussed fail path you already knew how to handle it. Even if presented with a very different failure path, you still knew what you would do in the event of a failure.

As I survey those outcomes, the benefit of the second two far outweigh the cost of the first. It wasn’t that much time wasted and even if we didn’t need the plan who is to say a future project won’t benefit from that discussion?

Angle #2 – Embrace Your Failures (Plan to learn from failure)

On the same day as the lawnmower “rescue mission”, I was listening to a radio show and heard the host talking about a time he tried starting a business -he failed. He received a call from an executive recruiter shortly after the failure. Someone wanted him to be CEO of a business in a very similar space. He was confused and asked the recruiter, “doesn’t the company know I just failed doing this same business?” I am paraphrasing the answer but believe it’s worth bolding, “That is why they want to hire you. They know you have the maturity from the failure and know you have that experience.” He decided to not go with the job for various reasons but that sounds like a really smart team looking to hire the position. They saw the wisdom gained through failure.

I’ll always remember when I was thrown into the pit with clustering for the first time. It was a new company, they liked my SQL Server DBA experience and felt I would be able to pick up clustering working with a consultant and be able to introduce the concept to their very young but quickly growing SQL Server environment. The consultant wasn’t actually a clustering expert so we muddled through together. I read the best practices, documentation, etc. but I got most of my knowledge about clustering where the rubber meets the road. Those first few months were interesting. I learned a lot of things the hard way (pay closer attention to the dialog boxes, don’t remove a dependent resource before clearing the dependency, etc) I had brought the production cluster down a couple times while fumbling. I don’t suggest this approach and wouldn’t normally take it but the timing left us little choice. I had a couple red faced moments but you know what? I learned a ton. I could have got discouraged and said forget this, I could have let the failures distract me but I documented where I messed up and gained knowledge (both of clustering and dealing with failures) that helped me on my journey to where I am today.

I want to repeat the secret from my introduction – You are going to fail. You’ll have multiple failures in diverse areas in life. It’s what you do with them that predicts if you’ll be an overall success. If you embrace the failure, learn from it and move on, then was it really a fail? If you flounder and flop after each failure and get gun shy then it most definitely was.

What Do You Think?

How do you plan for failure? Do you think I’m being too paranoid? Have a story of a time you learned through mistakes/failures? Share your thoughts below in the comments, I am sure others would love to see how not alone they are.

Part Two

Check out the follow up post, it continues the theme with a couple more angles:

  • Angle #3 – Everybody Fails!
  • Angle #4 – Cleanup, Aisle 4
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