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Is There An Award For Failure?

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Humans have been programmed to look at almost everything as winning or losing. Everywhere we look, sports, movies, music, art, business, investments, reviews, personal performance, work, statistics, analytics, health, and the list goes on.

Now, granted we do need some sort of system or measurement tool that lets us know how well we are doing or performing, no argument there. There is one statistic that we often really don’t look at unless it’s to understand why something failed or who’s at fault.

Failure could be one of the most misunderstood statistics of all.

I had an advertising client, I will call him Tom, in Phoenix who owned three restaurants. One day during a lunch meeting about the opening of the fourth newest restaurant in his portfolio we got on the topic of hiring people to run a restaurant. I asked Tom what he looked for when he hired a manager to run his restaurants. I was a little surprised by his answer.

Tom said he hires people to manage his restaurants who have failed at owning or running a restaurant. He went on to tell me that someone who has failed knows what not to do or what doesn’t work. They have a deep personal experience and understanding of the challenges that come with running a restaurant. They also have a deep sense of pride when a challenge arises and those past failures become learning experiences that are turned into successful decisions.

I asked Tom if that makes a difference in the number of mistakes made by a manager. Tom said, that sometimes, it’s tough to eliminate mistakes. The real value is a manager who doesn’t make decisions based on the lack of failed experiences, they make decisions knowing what could go wrong and how to critically think through the challenges even when faced with different factors in similar situations that they have been in before.   

I asked Tom if his hiring approach limited his options when looking for a manager. He said no. If he interviews a highly successful restaurant manager, he knows there is a good chance that somewhere this person failed and Tom wants to know all about it because that’s usually what made them highly successful.

Failure comes with a price and it’s our fault

I know that someone is reading this and thinking I never fail because I’m just that good. My response is how do you know? How would you know that there is an even better version of you out there somewhere if you haven’t pushed yourself no matter how good you think you are?

Sure, there’s a price that comes with failure, but that’s because we place such a high value on success. People are afraid to try something new or different and fail. People like doing the same old thing because it’s safe. I have been in leadership meetings where every leader agrees to something to simply go with the flow or not rock the boat. People don’t share ideas or ways to improve things because of the price of failure. 

As leaders, we determine the price of failure. Some leaders are afraid to fail so they micromanage. Some leaders say they want to hear new ideas but really don’t want to hear them because that might change things and fail, which could bring the wrath of their leaders down on them. Failing on a project might mean a redo and extra work no one likes, so please don’t try anything different. 

If there is a culture where failure is not an option, growth usually stagnates. I’m not saying let’s all screw up and not be accountable for it. Just think about the price, and what does it cost not to try something different?

Because of the type of work, I do there is a need for creativity and as a leader, I know that if I stifle creativity nothing different happens. Every computer-based training, workshop, team development, or course we develop starts to look the same. My team members get frustrated, and bored, and eventually leave. 

Here is my team agreement:

As a team, we look at opportunities that could benefit from trying something different. As a team, we brainstorm and share different ideas together. We all agree on an approach that could deliver the results we are looking for. If the new idea works and is successful the team gets the credit. If it fails, as the leader, I take responsibility for the failure, not the team. 

The team knows I have their back, I maintain a space where ideas are welcomed and encouraged. We discuss failed ideas and what we learned from them so we can apply new thinking to future projects. There is always the risk of failure so we apply all of our learned knowledge to reduce the chance of failure. When something does fail, and it will, we know that we approached the challenge intelligently and will learn something new.

When failure happens don’t criticize, don’t tell them what they did wrong, don’t tell them what they should have done. Instead, ask them what they learned. This is when you put on your coach leader hat and open a dialogue using active listening around exploring their view and personal experiences. We are taught from an early age to see failure as a negative event. Give yourself and your staff the opportunity to experience it in a different way. 

What we learn

Sure, sometimes we fail because we are in the wrong job, the wrong role, or the wrong industry. We have stigmatized failure to be a negative experience and none of us like to fail for any number of reasons. 

Failure is a valuable learning experience. As an educator, I love to design failure into assignments to help people understand the power of failure because in many cases it brings a deeper understanding of ourselves and our abilities. Learning how to accept responsibility and work through failure brings rewards down the road for both you and your staff.

When I facilitate leadership brainstorming events I usually start them with an exercise I use when I teach art. I place an object in the center of the table and ask them to draw it. I get laughs, I get people telling me they can’t draw and I tell them that it doesn’t matter. I want them to do their best at drawing the object, that’s all I’m asking. 

I give them about five minutes or until most of them are done. The result is everyone draws the object exactly how they see it. I collect the drawings and tape them to the wall and everyone shrieks, laughs, or gasps because some of the drawings are, well, not that accurate, and then there are the ones that did a pretty good job. This is a great icebreaker by the way.

Next, I tell them to take a good look at the object because we are going to draw it again. I give them about 30 seconds and then give them a blank sheet of paper and tell them this time, they will draw it with their eyes closed.   

Again, I get laughing and are you kidding me comments. I tell them to just do it there are no expectations. I tell them when they are done to put the pencil or pen down and open their eyes. We get a bunch of drawing that looks like Picasso’s drawings. I collect them and tape them to the wall under the other drawings. 

I ask them which drawings are more interesting to look at. They almost always say the second ones because they are all different and most of them don’t look like the object at all because the expectation of drawing the object perfectly has been removed. Everyone is now on a level playing field no matter their skill, knowledge, or talent so everyone’s ideas are equally important and the expectation is, that we are now open to all kinds of different ideas no matter how crazy they appear.

Oh, and by the way, if the group tells you the first drawings are more interesting, ask them why, that might give you some interesting insight into the dynamics of the group.

We limit our imagination by what we see because we don’t want to fail

So where’s our award for failing? What would happen if we handed out outstanding learning awards? Imagine the trust you could build with your teams. It would be a way to illustrate how you, a staff member, or your team worked through a challenge. You discuss what you tried and how it failed, what you learned, and what you tried again until you were successful. 

In continuous improvement, there is an improvement model titled FOCUS PDCA. FOCUS PDCA is a method used to approach problems big and small. I want to highlight the PDCA part of the improvement cycle.

P – Is the plan, pick something you want to fix, review, adjust, test, or experiment with.

D – Is the do, once you have a plan, test it, and see what happens.

C – Is the check the results, did it work or did it fail?

A – Act on your findings. If it worked do it, if it failed try again, and repeat D and C until you achieve the results you are looking for.   

I bring up the PDCA method because failure is an intricate part of problem-solving, it’s an effective way for us to learn.

Exercise | Deliberate practice

Allowing failure to happen does come with a price and risk, so we need to be careful how we allow it to happen. 

If someone wants to try something different we need to evaluate the ‘failure factor’, in other words, what happens if they fail? Is the risk of trying something different worth the cost of failure? If someone wants to try a different approach to something, what’s the worst that could happen if it didn’t work? What’s the worst thing that could happen if you don’t let them try? 

On most teams, you will have high performers that you know somewhere down the road who want to go into management or just want to improve their skills. If you want to encourage them give them a stretch assignment, something they could try their hand at and if they fail they don’t blow something up. 

Some ideas for stretch assignments:

  • Let them run a meeting.
  • Let them create an agenda for a team meeting – before running one.
  • Have them evaluate a process to see if it could be done differently or better.
  • Let them sit in on a meeting for you, take notes, and share with you what they learned.
  • Let them go to a professional training or seminar and share, with the team what they learned.
  • Ask them to review a presentation you are going to deliver to leadership and give you feedback.
  • Ask them to assist you on a project you are involved with, something small and important.

Remember, when failure happens don’t criticize, don’t tell them what they did wrong, don’t tell them what they should have done. Instead, ask them what they learned. Put on your coach leader hat and open a dialogue using active listening around exploring their view and personal experiences. We are taught from an early age to see failure as a negative event. Give yourself and your staff the opportunity to experience it in a different way. 

The whole idea is for us to learn from failure, including ourselves when our staff fails, what could we have done differently to support our staff and reduce the risk.

Failure is a learning experience and a great teacher. Don’t hinder someone from learning something new or something about themselves. Coaching your staff on how to accept responsibility and work through failure brings rewards down the road for both you and your staff.

Use the PDCA method of problem-solving, simple to use

In continuous improvement, there is an improvement model titled FOCUS PDCA. FOCUS PDCA is a method used to approach problems big and small. I want to highlight the PDCA part of the improvement cycle.

P – Is the plan, pick something you want to fix, review, adjust, test, or experiment with.

D – Is the do, once you have a plan, test it, and see what happens.

C – Is the check the results, did it work or did it fail?

A – Act on your findings. If it worked do it, if it failed try again, repeat D and C until you achieve the results you are looking for. 

In your journal, for each challenge you work on, keep track of each PDCA step in the process. This way you have documentation of what worked and didn’t work. Maybe somewhere down the road, you save someone a headache because you have the research, or someone comes to you and asks for your secret of how to become an effective leader.    

Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.

 

 

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