The Temple of Fail

25 Nov 2019

DISCLAIMER: This was not my idea - I picked it up from Jane Nicholson at an XTC event, who was introduced to it by Jess Gilbert (who in turn, I am told, got it from someone else). This post is just explaining why I believe it can be a useful exercise, not any truly original thinking!

One of the things that is really important to me is that my team and I keep learning at work. As such, fostering a learning environment is kinda key. I think we do that pretty well at Haplo -- we have hired nearly exclusively early-career developers to our tech team for several years now, and one of the key points most hires mention as to why they join is that they feel it's a good place to learn quickly, with the requisite support early on in their career.

One of the regular things we do to foster learning from our mistakes, and an open environment of sharing, is the "Temple of Fail".

How this works:

Every week in our retro (which we call "demo day", but that's a different story) we have a regular section called the "Temple of Fail". This time is reserved for everyone to bring to the table an example of a mistake they made this week. This failure can be as small and silly or as large and catastrophic as you want, but we do encourage everyone to bring one to the table each week.

The intention then is to share that mistake with the team, so others can learn from it. We have a quick discussion on how to avoid doing that in the future, and that way we hope that only one member of the team will make each mistake as a result!

Of course this can be a pretty intimidating thing to do, especially early on in your career (literally day 2 in some cases). Team leads asking you to turn up to a group meeting and tell them what you fucked up this week in front of everything is kinda terrifying. As a result, we try to make the "ceremony" around this session as light-hearted as possible.

For example, when introducing the session I'll say something like "we, the devotees of our Lady the Goddess of Failure, have this week..." or something similarly ridiculous. The intention is to make it as low-blame and light-hearted as possible, to minimise any tension around the table.

This has to go hand in hand with a no-blame attitude to mistakes, where you want to fix the process, not the person, when something goes wrong. I'm lucky enough to work somewhere where our directors have worked very hard to foster a supportive and learning environment, which is really what enables this to work.

Of course people do repeat mistakes, but this for me is one of the most valuable things that we do as a team. Not everyone has something to share each week, but being able to minimise the number of mistakes that are repeated across the team is incredibly valuable.

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