Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Failure Option

Clay Shirky takes a look at the Healthcare.gov disaster comes up with some familiar suspects: bosses who don't listen to the people who know. The kind of people who think they are saying something smart when they tell those people who know that "failure is not an option." As he points out, they are just quoting some screenwriter who thought it sounded cute. Shirky says "failure is always an option."

I put it slightly differently: failure in not an option, it's an outcome. One that becomes probable when the idiots in charge start saying stuff like "failure is not an option."

Some Shirky:

For the first couple of weeks after the launch, I assumed any difficulties in the Federal insurance market were caused by unexpected early interest, and that once the initial crush ebbed, all would be well. The sinking feeling that all would not be well started with this disillusioning paragraph about what had happened when a staff member at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the department responsible for Healthcare.gov, warned about difficulties with the site back in March. In response, his superiors told him…

[...] in effect, that failure was not an option, according to people who have spoken with him. Nor was rolling out the system in stages or on a smaller scale, as companies like Google typically do so that problems can more easily and quietly be fixed. Former government officials say the White House, which was calling the shots, feared that any backtracking would further embolden Republican critics who were trying to repeal the health care law.

The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.

Failure is usually a very likely outcome, and those who fail to prepare for it are idiots. But read Clay - he says it more clearly and in considerable detail.