Listen, learn, act, fail, repeat

fists

Like many people, I’ve been a sponge lately, taking in amazing books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, listening to fantastic podcasts like How Core Values Influence Diversity and Inclusion with Kim Crayton, and reading mind-blowing articles like What is Owed by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Now is a time for me to learn, and I’ve got years of work to do before I can claim to have gotten past the tip of the iceberg.

But I don’t have years, weeks, or even days to read, listen to, and process all of this information before taking action. I have a job to do, and a team demanding that I use my position to make positive change now. Yes, this is a time to learn, but it’s also a time to act. We’ve been patient – even with ourselves – for too long.

This is complicated by the fact that it’s a terrible time to make mistakes. The stakes are high and scrutiny has never been greater. On the positive side, we’re all being held accountable for our words and actions, as we should be. On the negative side, we’re also demanding that people take risks, and mistakes can be costly.

So it seems like we need to listen, learn, and take action, and we need to do it without making mistakes. But how?

Unfortunately, we’re going to make mistakes

Unless our plan is to learn everything before we do anything, we will fail, at least occasionally. The issues we face related to racial injustice have been deeply ingrained in our society for hundreds of years, and in order for us to make things better, we’re going to have to have hard conversations and take risks. And what are the odds we’ll get it right every single time? Not very good.

If our goal is to make things better, and to do it quickly, we need a structure that allows us to make mistakes and learn from them iteratively. And here’s where I turn to the agile principle of failing fast. In agile development, when we talk about failing fast, we assume that failure is inevitable, at least some of the time. And if failure is inevitable, then the faster we do it, the faster we learn and improve. According to Ben Rossi in Information Age:

In software development, the point about “fail fast” is that if a failure is going to take place you want to reduce the time lag in a) detecting the failure, and b) relaying the detection back to the responsible developer. 

What would it mean to apply this concept to our interactions with others, to our discussions about racial injustice? If we all agreed that “detecting the failure” was step one, then we’d expect it, and we’d be grateful when it happened quickly so we could move on to step two, “relaying the detection back.” For example, if our organization unintentionally supported the wrong charity, or made well intentioned hires without supporting them well, or changed HR policies that singled people out instead of bringing them together, we could identify these errors and fix them. If we could do this without fear or judgement, imagine how quickly we’d learn and improve.

Of course, this would require that we all acknowledged up front that we’re going to make mistakes, and that this is as important as it is inevitable. We’d have to trust each other, assume positive intent, and agree not to blame or judge each other when we fail. We’d need to speak freely, without fear of unintended consequences, and we’d need to listen openly, giving others the benefit of the doubt. This sounds hard, but I think it’s possible.

Embracing the agile concept of failing fast

At the start of this post, I said what we needed to do was clear: listen, learn, and take action without making mistakes. But what if we acknowledged that mistakes will be made and leveraged a process – like agile – that helped us fail fast, correct our behavior, and learn? What if we were willing to be wrong without being defensive?

As we work towards social justice and equality, we need to acknowledge that we will, inevitably, make mistakes. And while agile philosophy may not be the silver bullet that makes us anti-racist, I do think it might offer us a viable way forward. If we embrace the concept of failing fast and use it as a way to learn, understand, and improve over time, we’ll be better able to meet the needs of each other and our teams over time. And that’s a start.

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