At this year’s ONA conference, I’ll be on a panel called “I failed and so can you.”

I’ve always been a big fan of failure. I think journalism should hold a “fail camp“ (inspired by Ethan Zuckerman). When I restarted the blog carnival, a site that I’ve organized where bloggers can convene to all write about the same topic, I dedicated a month toward failure. I’m working on a new project (details to come soon, promise) and I think/hope failure will be a big part of it.

We talk a lot about barriers to success. But we also say that we can
only succeed on the shoulders of our many failures. Therefore, I’d like
to point out what I think are the barriers to failure (and therefore
also to success). If we don’t fail early and fail often, we won’t push
forward. So below are some barriers to failure. Luckily, most of these
are easily overcome if you can identify them.

7 barriers to failure

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1. It’s not a problem until it’s a problem

The “What Ifs” are a terrible thing. It assumes that every bad
scenario you can think of needs to be handled right away before you even
start. This is the opposite of the sage philosophy from “Getting Real”:
It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.
I put this barrier first because it’s a particularly poignant problem
in the journalism community. We are natural skeptics. Our instinct is to
think about who might be secretly benefiting, who is maliciously
stealing public money, what “problem” is there underneath the surface.
That’s great in reporting but the WRONG attitude to starting something
new. The “What Ifs” are unproductive. Deal with “this is” when it
happens. I am very familiar with “what ifs” because I get them every
time I explain Spot.Us to a journalist who has never heard of the concept.
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  • Concerned journalist: What if a neo-Nazi wants to fund a story? OH MY GOD, David — HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO JOURNALISM?
  • Answer: Well, we limit how much a person can donate, so you need a group of people.
  • Concerned journalist: Well, what if a GROUP of neo-Nazis want to fund a story?
  • Answer: Umm … well, you need a reporter who puts their professional reputation on the line doing that story.
  • Concerned journalist: Well, what if the reporter is a Nazi? Jesus, David, didn’t you think about that?
  • Answer if I have energy: If there is a group of neo-Nazis and a reporter, they don’t need my site to do the story they want to do.
  • Answer to stop the obvious “what if“ cycle of the conversation: You’re right. I should shut down the site before that happens.

Bottom line

If the reason you aren’t doing something starts with “what if” — it’s a bad reason not to move forward and perhaps fail. It’s not a problem until it’s a problem.

2. Tradition!!! (sung loudly while swinging your hands in the air)

Traditions are great. But if presented with a new way to do something
which breaks tradition, you should take it. Traditions are only as
strong as their tests. If you never test a tradition, it’s weak, fragile
and hasn’t evolved. If you test the tradition against a new method and
the new method fails, score for tradition (waves hands, sings loudly),
but if not — you must learn to adapt. The old tradition of war was that
it was fought in an open field in straight lines of volleyed musket
fire wearing bright uniforms that looked like targets. That “tradition”
didn’t stand the test of time for a reason. Do you really want to defend
the online version of volley-musket fire because it’s “tradition?”

3. Letting the perfect be an enemy of the good

Dreams of perfection should not stall the launch of something good.
If it were perfect, you wouldn’t fail early or often. You wouldn’t fail
at all. But one could also argue if you were aiming for perfection,
you’d end up attempting nothing. At a certain point, you have to accept
what is and isn’t possible in a reasonable timeline and aim for what’s
reasonable. The good news is that you don’t have to END there. You are
just starting there. In some respects, I think that’s the reason so many
folks let perfection become the enemy of the good. They are concerned
that they’ll never progress after an initial effort. Hence, we won’t
start unless we know we can get all the way. This is a great way to
invest months into a project that could fall flat on its face. Remember: It’s cheaper and easier to try something than it is to debate about whether or not to try something.

4. Fear … of failure

It’s a perfectly natural fear. Nobody wants to have their ego
bruised. Luckily, we are living in a time where the web is figuring
itself out. There is a way to fail gracefully, to fail toward success.
It’s not even altruistic — if you fail, you’ll learn more and will be more
likely to succeed in a future endeavor. You can fail selfishly and get
kudos along the way. Remember kids, only you can defeat fear of failure.

5. Institutional momentum

This is a bit different from “tradition” above (No. 2). In this case, it
isn’t for lack of will that new things are tried and potentially failed.
In this instance, it’s for lack of an institutional way. In other words,
there are no resources (time, money, knowledge), to get started on a
project even though everyone earnestly wants to try it. The good news: Any institution that has this problem of existing momentum also has some
resources — it’s just a matter of allocation. This is the classic
newspaper problem. Why don’t news organizations stop the presses and
invest in digital? Because print is still where they make their money.
You can’t cut off the head to save the body.

But here’s the truth. If there is a will, there is a way. Fact is, if
you accept that perfection is not the enemy of the good and that you
don’t need to accommodate every “what if” scenario, you can create a
streamlined alpha of many projects. You can do this independent of the
institution. And institutions need to learn to let go, allow some 20 percent time, skunkworks
or whatever you want to call it. You just need a wee-little bit of
space, the smudgiest of resources to begin. From there, you’ll get a
better sense of whether or not something is worth more resources.

6. Resources to get started

There is good, fast and cheap. You get to pick two. Keep your scope small and remain flexible.
Google does have a lot of resources, and yet innovation happens outside
of the Google-plex. It’s possible. You just have to be ready to make
sacrifices. The good news is that you can always come back to fix
things. Later will always happen — now is fleeting. Take advantage of
now so that in the future, you can continue to push forward.

7. Leadership vacuum

If you don’t have good leadership, you won’t launch new products.
Leadership needs to be clear, so that everyone can get in line.
Leadership needs to have a vision, to communicate that vision and know
how to navigate the above barriers. If not, they themselves are a
barrier. In truth, leadership is a post in and of itself, but certainly a
leadership vacuum is a great barrier to failure. While that last
sentence may seem counter intuitive (great leadership should lead to
success) consider Teddy Roosevelt’s quote: “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

Carpe Perscribo (Seize the writing/journalism)