The Bullshit Behind “If It Failed, You Did It Wrong”.

I often find myself deconstructing stories and ideas to find out what the key factors were in their success or failure. It’s the engineer training in me that’s trying to find out what are key elements for something to swing one way or another hoping to apply (or remove) those traits from my own endeavors, hoping to emulate the success stories. It follows then that I spend a fair amount of my time looking introspectively, analyzing my own ideas and experiences to see how future plans line up against my set of criteria for possible future success. One of the patterns I’ve noticed from doing all this analysis is the prevalence of the idea that should you fail at something that automatically you’re the one who did something wrong and it wasn’t the idea that was at fault.

Take for instance Tim Ferriss author of two self help books, The 4 Hour Work Week and The 4 Hour Body, who has undoubtedly helped thousands of people achieve goals that they had never dreamed of attempting in the past. I’ve read both his books and whilst I believe there’s a lot of good stuff in there it’s also 50% horse shit, but that rule applies to any motivator or self help proprietor. One of the underpinnings of his latest book was the slow carb diet, aimed at shedding layers of fat and oodles of weight in extremely short periods of time. I haven’t tried it since it doesn’t line up with my current goals (I.E. gaining weight) but those who have and didn’t experience the results got hit back with this reply from the man himself:

The following will address 99%+ of confusion:

– If you have to ask, don’t eat it.
– If you haven’t had blood tests done, I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you aren’t measuring inches or haven’t measured bodyfat % with an accurate tool (BodPod, etc. and NOT bodyfat scales), I don’t want to hear that the diet doesn’t work.
– If you’re a woman and taking measurements within 10 days prior to menstruation (which I advise against in the book), I don’t want to hear about the lack of progress.

Whilst being a classic example of Wally Blocking¹ this also places all blame for failure on the end user, negating any possibility that the diet doesn’t work for everyone (and it really can’t, but that’s another story). However admitting that this diet isn’t for everyone would undermine it’s credibility and those who experienced failure would, sometimes rightly, put the failure on the process rather than themselves.

Motivators aren’t the only ones who outright deny that there’s a failure with their process, it’s also rife with the proponents of Agile development techniques. Whilst I might be coming around to some of the ideas since I found I was already using them its not uncommon to hear about those who’ve experimented Agile and haven’t had a great deal of success with it. The response from Agile experts is usually that you’re doing it wrong and that you’re inability to adhere strictly to the Agile process is what lead to your failure, not that agile might not be appropriate for your particular product or team. Of course this is a logical fallacy, akin to the no true Scotsman idea, and doing the research would show you that Agile isn’t appropriate everywhere with other methods producing great results

In the end it all boils down to the fact that not every process is perfect and can never be appropriate for any situation. Blaming the end user may maintain the illusion that your process is beyond reproach but realistically you will eventually have to face hard evidence that you can’t design a one size fits all solution, especially for anything that will be used by a large number of people. For those of you who have tried a “guaranteed to succeed” process like those I’ve described above and failed it would be worth your effort to see if the fault truly lies within you or the process simply wasn’t appropriate for what you were using it for, even if it was marketed to you as such.

¹I tried to find an online reference to this saying but can’t seem to find it anywhere. In essence Wally Blocking someone stems from the Wally character in Dilbert who actively avoids doing any work possible. One of his tactics is when asked to do some piece of work place an unnecessarily large prerequisite on getting the work done, usually on the person requesting it. This will usually result in either the person doing the work themselves or getting someone else to do it, thus Wally had blocked any potential work from coming his way.

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