I just saw an article in The New York Times about a conference where usually boastful, mutually admiring non-profit organizations got together and quietly discussed their failures (you can see the article here). The FailFaire Conference sounds like a pretty good idea to me, since learning from failure--especially that of others--is as valuable and viable as learning from success, and takes a lot more guts. And hey, you'll never have time to make all those mistakes yourself, so why not benefit from the experience of others?
The article pointed out that the focus of conference was to look at where technology brought to underdeveloped regions or countries did not succeed, or actually backfired, for many complex cultural, political, economic, and other reasons. It looks like the advanced technologies we revel in are not necessarily salvation to everyone around the world, and it is naïve or shortsighted to think otherwise.
I have seen this firsthand, since I followed the One Laptop Per Child project since its inception. The project's proponents were going to change the world by developing and delivering inexpensive laptop computers to impoverished, illiterate children everywhere. Many so-called journalists gave the project uncritical, glowing, even fawning attention and coverage, without asking obvious questions of the project's leadership, which was always looking for publicity and media spotlight. I could never figure out what the primary motivation for this project was, and I described about my qualms and concerns in an earlier column, "OLPC: Tech salvation or ego trip?" . (Ironically, according to article, the "prize" given at the FailFaire conference for the biggest failure was an actual OLPC laptop, which is sure to be a collector's item, someday!)
I know that it is easy to be oh-so-smart in hindsight, and look back and see what went wrong. It's also pretty aggravating to a project team. I also know it is even easier, and even more demeaning, when a third-party comes in after the fact and so casually criticizes: "didn’t you realize 'x' would happen?" or "why didn't you do such-and-such?" Such criticisms are so easy to make, especially when you had nothing to do with the project, but are only an after-the-fact pundit.
But here's the dilemma: just as we can point to products and projects that failed for non-technical reasons—meaning the product worked, but the customers didn't buy it—we can also point to examples to the contrary. There are many well-documented cases where something became a big hit, even though customers didn’t know they needed it, probably couldn’t envision it if described to them, and for which pundits and conventional wisdom said "hey, don’t bother with that"—yet a "champion" made it happen and it became a success. The legendary Walkman cassette tape player is just one example—it was pursued by Sony's chairman Akio Morita, despite considerable internal opposition .
It's important and even necessary to do after-the-fact analysis of both success and failure, but how do you make sure that you don’t squelch innovation and enthusiasm? Sometimes failure is the proving arena for success, as Apple proved with their Apple 1and Lisa computers.?