Admitting Failure is a Success

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So today we must discuss acknowledging success and admitting failure. Oddly enough, unlike posts that outwardly appear to have next to nothing whatsoever to do with laboratory information management systems (or in laboratory informatics, the new 'vogue' term) this one is partially triggered by memories of a large-ish failure in this field. But in order to properly explain we must return to the past.

A Trip Through Social Services

Once upon a time I worked not as a laboratory informatics professional but as a Microsoft Access database developer. Access wasn't just all desktops -- it had a workgroups mode that allowed a small handful of people (fewer than 10 to be safe lest the thing corrupt) to work together on the same system. While working for a consultancy in Chicago I was assigned to work on an Access database for a social service organization that ran a shelter in the Chicagoland area for battered women. They had regular government reporting requirements which were mainly fulfilled by a particular report generated by the system.

Now here's a good point -- the real reason why people have a LIMS is the same reason this organization put up with a hard-to-maintain Microsoft Access database: the reporting. Their system had logical issues in the code which is why the consulting firm I was employed by was called. But ultimately the software's purpose was to produce that report. It had something to do with their financing as I remember it and this is the same thing for laboratories. Most laboratories must regularly produce reports (Certificates of Analysis, etc.) based on the work they perform. If you trace back the origins of a dozen successfully implemented and working systems to their roots you'll find the principal reason for acquiring the system was really to meet a reporting need. All of that other stuff about workflows and sampling handling and instrument integration is mainly hogwash. People buy laboratory informatics, at least principally, because not having one has some effect on how and whether they get paid. In some cases large system purchase orders were only produced *after* a poor FDA audit. That should tell you something.

Waxing Nostalgic or...

I got to thinking about this organization again not for the mere nostalgia but because I noticed that the former head of that organization was still on my LinkedIn contact list. When I took a look at this individual's biography I was shocked to find that the shelter was omitted and I got to wondering why. Could it be that, after years of operation, it had failed? I remembered the television news story that asked for donations to keep its doors open followed by the story that it had finally shut down. Why wouldn't it be listed in a simple biography though? Isn't trying worth credit?

That got me wondering about the accomplishments of the new organization this individual runs. After perusing its list of accomplishments it hit me...it does not include any *failures*! (It is also fairly dicey about how the organization actually affected some of the outcomes it listed...but I digress.)

When we do not acknowledge failures, can we really grow? I wondered.

The LIMS Tie-In

There were two places in the laboratory informatics industry that similarly shocked me regarding what I now call, 'detrimental failure acknowledgement avoidance' or DFAA for short. The first came from a vendor conference I attended where the speaker looked odd when I brought up a question about performing project post-mortems. A post-mortem is something you do when you have a failed project and you would like to know why. You look for reasons why it failed and (hopefully) institute procedures to avoid repeating it (the failure, not the project) in the future. The speaker looked as though he either had no idea what I was talking about or wouldn't dream of actually analyzing failure.

The second case happened on a project that I was not able to see to completion because it ran out of money and my contract was not extended. I heard from other developers that the entire project was looked upon as a failure but some wily manager came up with the 'brilliant' idea of chucking all of the customizations and other work we had done into the wastebasket (along with the umpteen dollars they spent), using the core out of the box system, and calling the endeavor a 'success.' This is classic DFAA.

DFAA It Isn't Politically Correct

There is much talk in America nowadays about political correctness but this really is not that. DFAA is an infectious form of self-delusion. It is the proverbial 'sweeping under the rug' and then convincing people to bypass the rug so they don't notice. On the personal level when you only look at your successes and never at your failures you risk building a profile of yourself as infallible. Worse, people adept at this activity can become 'spin artists' that paint the word 'success' over even easily avoidable failures.

Sometimes an organization can ensure that it cannot fail by never setting up any measurable goals in the first place. How many social service organizations fall into this category? The goal isn't to reduce hunger in America by 15% or to increase the education level of 6-15 year olds in the top major cities by 3 percentage points. Instead you hear goals like, 'our goal is to reduce hunger and poverty throughout the world' or 'our goal is to improve the educational outcomes of inner city youth' or 'our goal is to reduce global warming.' Blah, blah. No measurable goal means you cannot actually ever fail. You can keep trying (and collecting funds all the while) forever.

In Closing

In closing I think I know why this all happens. When I was a youth a friend woke up one day to find his Atari system was not working. After some sad advice from his mother and perhaps some promise to buy another in the future he agreed to put it into the trash. Another friend down the street found the console, took it home, fixed it, and then proceeded to tell the first friend all about it. According to him the problem was simply a loose wire. Well, the first friend became enraged. He demanded the console back, claiming that it was 'his property!' I don't think I had ever seen him so affected. He really looked quite mad about it. Of course we were able to explain to him that there was something called 'finders keepers' and stuff that you throw out isn't yours anymore and he calmed down a bit. Of course he still went home to confirm all this with his mother to no avail.

I think ultimately people need to just 'grow up' and diagnose why things did not turn out how they expected. Sometimes you lose stuff because you didn't have the common sense to pop it open with a screwdriver and see if there was anything obvious that could be fixed. If you don't have the intellectual tools to look and understand what you are looking at, you'll never really know. Your only recourse will be to complain to mom (management) and she'll just tell you what she always says -- go and wash up for dinner; you'll get another for Christmas.

Go Back

Citation: Admitting Failure is a Success. (2017). Retrieved Wed Mar 22 22:16:30 2017, from http://www.limsexpert.com/cgi-bin/bixchange/bixchange.cgi?pom=limsexpert3;iid=readMore;go=1485272901