Practicing failure

Harper Reed (photo by OFA via harperreed.com)

This Tuesday evening I made my first trip to Chicago’s City Winery to hear a talk from Harper Reed as part of BMA Chicago’s inaugural “Fuel” event. If you’re not familiar with Harper, he’s someone who probably wouldn’t be mistaken for most others at a typical business marketing event; picture a scraggly beard, dark, thick-rimmed glasses, t-shirt, hoodie and piercings. What’s most important to note, though, is that he has served as the CTO of Threadless.com as well as for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, engineering one of the most impressive technological efforts in politics to date.

Harper focused on a few main ideas in his presentation Tuesday, but there was one that stuck out to me the most: the idea of practicing failure.

Drawing from his personal experience working for the Obama campaign, he explained how all of the crucial technological pieces worked just as the were supposed to when they needed to the most–on election day. But this wasn’t just by luck. It was actually because Harper and his team made it a point to “break everything on purpose,” when it didn’t matter to the public. By doing this, they were able to catch any potential issues and make sure they were no longer issues before “game day.” It wasn’t easy (Harper mentioned 12-hour days, every day), but by painstakingly “practicing failure” in advance, everything went off without a hitch when it really did matter.

I like to think this is something I try to do regularly in both my professional and personal life, but in all honesty I probably don’t do it enough. Most of us probably don’t do it enough. After all, the idea of breaking something is scary. Breaking things requires more work and can lead to more immediate stress, even if we break them on purpose. Also, it can be so easy to become fixated on the small details of projects–big and small–that we can lose sight of the end result. But if we want to launch those end results into the world as smoothly as possible so they can be considered true successes, it’s important to remember that any failure that happens up until that point isn’t something that should be avoided at all costs, hidden, or something to cause shame when it does happen. In fact, as Harper pointed out, failing on purpose (and even unintentionally) can be an invaluable ingredient in achieving final success.

What do you think? Do you make it a point to practice failure?

 

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