by Frank Wammes

The value of human failure

Jul 13, 2016
IT LeadershipProductivity SoftwareStartups

Robotics and automation are helping us minimize failure and increase productivity. But failure may be a key to success.

It seems we’re currently obsessed with automation.

Tesla is pioneering self-driving vehicles, with Google Car and other automotive giants in its slipstream. Amazon is trying to reinvent commerce with Amazon Dash – which literally makes it possible to replenish your routine purchases like toilet paper and laundry detergent with a push of a button. Boston Dynamics has built a robot dog that slips on banana peels – what an amazing time to be alive! (Besides slipping on banana peels, the robot dog is capable of bringing you beers, picking up after you and helping you with your grocery shopping – more functional, but less hilarious).

Robotics and automation are reshaping the way we interact with the world, freeing our hands from one task and enabling us to tackle bigger, better problems. But automation comes at a price. With automation comes monitoring, and with monitoring comes control. And control is not always the best way forward.

Let me share a personal example, showcasing the adverse effect of ill-advised automation. My teenage son, who is currently in high school, is smack-bam in the middle of that curious life phase called puberty. Sixteen and full of hormones, he is focused on everything but studying. Women, parties, sports — you name it, he likes it. But studying? Not so much.

Funnily enough, his behavior reminds me of someone who was very much like him at that age: me. When I was 16, I too was focused on everything but studying. My grades suffered immensely, but I had one saving grace: My school only sent report cards three times a year. With only three highly predictable “performance measurements,” I quickly learned to game the system. First with some extra last-minute studying, later by subtly faking my report cards. My manipulations gave my parents peace of mind, which gave me plenty of time to fool around at first but then do some last-minute sprints at the end of the year in order to pass — albeit barely.

My son’s not so lucky. From the very first day he entered to high school, I got access to the school’s student monitoring system. Through that system, I can keep track of everything: his attendance, his homework, his grades — usually before he does, or before he cares to tell me. So when my son’s grades started slipping, I did what every parent does: I increased monitoring and exercised control — just as any manager would do when an employee’s performance starts to slip. I tried taking control of the thought processes my son wasn’t exhibiting. In a way, I tried automating his learning process by taking over. And, as every parent learns soon enough (and as every manager should learn soon enough), it didn’t work.

My constant attention to his performance led to resistance, a troubled relationship and even more dispirited disinterest from my son. And his grades? As bad as ever. Until finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and told him: “Fine, sort it out yourself.” And soon enough – magically, incredibly – his grades were on the rise. It’s almost a Disney story. My son started thinking for himself, realized what was at stake and took responsibility. And passed.

Obviously, IT systems don’t go through puberty the way humans do, but every IT department does go through a maturation process (as do organizations as a whole). With current technology and pressure on margins and revenues, there’s a constant pressure on CIOs to automate in order to cut costs and reduce head count. I’m fearful that, through the constant pressure on linking systems, software and processes – call it the automation of automation – we’re creating an incredible gap between the systems and the people that are supposed to take care of the systems.

The lesson I’ve learned from my son is this: Whenever the factors of motivation and responsibility are involved, think twice about immediate full-fledged automation. There’s value in manual failure, as long as you learn from it. So I’d advise CIOs to first ensure that processes are completely under control before thinking about automating them. I’m suddenly reminded of the powerful words of the legendary Michael Jordan in this iconic Nike commercial: “I’ve failed over and over again. And that is why I succeed.”