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3 TED Talks That Will Help Your DevOps Team Handle Failure like an Expert

Re-examining your team’s relationship with failure is the key to successfully managing complex systems

Word failure being erased by a pencil

As humans, it is natural to have a poor relationship with failure. It often brings about feelings of shame, guilt, anger, and/or self-doubt.

Failure, in one way or another, is an unavoidable part of the human experience. It is also inevitable when managing complex systems. Within DevOps, embracing the opportunity that failure provides is a key component of reaching operational maturity. Success in this complex, ever-changing cloud landscape requires testing new ideas and risk-taking to serve customer needs. The alternative is to stagnate, stop innovating, and ultimately, get left behind.

While we can’t always control how or when a failure occurs, we can control our attitude towards it. When we reframe our understanding of failure — from something negative to both a possibility and an opportunity — amazing things can (and will) happen.

“The greatest teacher, failure is” - Yoda

Don’t just take our (and Yoda’s) word for it. Below are 3 TED talks from experts that will help you re-examine your relationship with failure. We’ve also included some steps you can take to help implement those lessons in your life and in your work.

Tim Ferriss: Why you should define your fears instead of your goals#

TED Description: The hard choices — what we most fear doing, asking, saying — are very often exactly what we need to do. How can we overcome self-paralysis and take action? Tim Ferriss encourages us to fully envision and write down our fears in detail, in a simple but powerful exercise he calls "fear-setting." Learn more about how this practice can help you thrive in high-stress environments and separate what you can control from what you cannot.

“I can trace all of my biggest wins and all of my biggest disasters averted back to doing fear-setting.”

Key Takeaway: ‘Fear-setting’ can help you plan for and welcome failure. By actively naming and embracing what we fear — in this case, failure — and accepting it as one of our potential outcomes, we can begin the process of understanding the impact it may have.

How to apply it: Embracing failure as a possibility enables us to take deliberate steps to enhance service reliability and resiliency. Use the fear-setting framework shared to outline worst-case scenarios along with the costs of inaction. This will help you understand the opportunity failure provides and focus your efforts accordingly.

Tim Harford: Trial, error, and the God complex#

TED Description: Economics writer Tim Harford studies complex systems — and finds a surprising link among the successful ones: they were built through trial and error. In this sparkling talk from TEDGlobal 2011, he asks us to embrace our randomness and start making better mistakes.

“We have a problem-solving technique that works. Now you show me a successful complex system, and I will show you a system that has evolved through trial and error.”

Key takeaway: Failure is a problem-solving technique. ‘Trial and error’ sounds and feels better than ‘repeated failure,’ but the end result is the same. Framing our actions in this way — recognizing failure as a possible outcome, changing our language and perspective on what failure is, and how frequently it occurs when managing complexity — can help us embrace failure for what it is, a learning tool that enables evolution and innovation.

How to apply it: Identify common words, phrases, or actions taken by your team that have a negative connotation and replace them with more positive ones. Small modifications to your perspective like this one can leave ripple effects on attitudes towards impending changes and the tasks at hand.

Astro Teller: The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure#

TED Description: "Great dreams aren't just visions," says Astro Teller, "They're visions coupled to strategies for making them real." The head of X (formerly Google X), Teller takes us inside the "moonshot factory," as it's called, where his team seeks to solve the world's biggest problems through experimental projects like balloon-powered Internet and wind turbines that sail through the air. Find out X's secret to creating an organization where people feel comfortable working on big, risky projects and exploring audacious ideas.

“The moonshot factory is a messy place. But rather than avoid the mess, pretend it's not there, we've tried to make that our strength. We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we're wrong.”

Key takeaway: Make failure a part of your process.

How to apply it: There are many ways to build failure into your DevOps processes. Here are few options:

  • Ensure performance and functional testing are built into the development process.
  • Use wargaming and chaos engineering to prepare for major surprises and identify areas of vulnerability.
  • Have a bias toward creating post-incident reviews and holding retrospectives so that you can learn from past failures.

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