Having the Freedom to Fail

Jun 13, 2019 | Culture, Leadership

Did you ever hear about the time that Google broke the Internet?

It was a fine January morning in 2009 and as many folks arrived at work on the Eastern Seaboard, fired up their computers, and navigated to their favourite pre-Superbowl commentary, they were met with a page of Google results stating that every page on the Internet ‘may harm your computer.’

While it only took 55 minutes to fix the problem, in the world of the Internet, it was a throwback to the Stone Age (and in their terms took thousands of years to get out of!).

In the end, it turned out to be human error, with one of Google’s engineers mistakenly assigning the entire Internet as potentially harmful, rather than a list of specific websites. However, it’s worthwhile noting Google’s initial reaction of blame, in contrast to how their ‘failure culture’ has evolved over time.

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘we can fix the blame, or fix the problem.’ And in this instance, Google did both.

Google’s gut reaction was to put out a statement claiming that their partner, stopbadware.org, had provided them with a faulty list of malware-laden websites. Stopbadware hit back with their own press release reminding Google that they did not provide any data to Google, and on it went for another 54 minutes (or so).

In the end, Google realized they had made the error, fixed the problem, issued an apology to stopbadware.org – and the rest of the internet-using world – and went back to business as usual.

But if we look at Google’s culture today, we can see how they’ve evolved from a blame-fixing culture, to a culture that quickly fixes problems and conducts post-mortems to identify the root cause of what went wrong, and evolve to make sure the problem never happens again.

Just last year Google has finally opened the kimono on its post-mortem culture, sharing the importance of blameless feedback, focusing on improvement and resilience (i.e. not viewing failures as setbacks), and by making post-mortems an iterative and collaborative process.

And this is a page we should all take out of Google’s book.

In every business, there is bound to be mistakes and moments of failure. Things go wrong, and people screw up.

It’s easy to approach those situations with a stick (rather than a carrot), but as leaders, we need to remember that these are moments to learn as a company, and opportunities for our employees to genuinely grow. It’s our job to separate the people from the problem, understand what went south, and then work together to revise process, systems, or approaches to nullify (or at least greatly reduce) risk of the same problem occurring in the future.

Because if you change how you approach failure at work, you’ll make a real, lasting change to your culture… and you’ll make it impossible for your business or employees to fail!

(If you want to see the rather detailed outcome of one of Google’s post-mortems when the internet went crazy for Shakespeare and overloaded Google, check out this link: https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/01/this-site-may-harm-your-computer-on.html)

By: Jesse Finn

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