Everyone is bound to fail at one point or another. There’s no such thing as 100% success in anything we do. Today’s society seems to be too focused on succeeding and has become very afraid of failure. Instead of sweeping the failure under the rug quietly, face it and learn from it. As a leader, we should provide safe environments for people to fail and learn.
“I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”
-Thomas A. Edison
Let’s first look at how not to approach failure. These are two anti-patterns that I have seen emerge from failures over the years.
- The blame game
Figuring out who to blame is a waste of time. If the leader does it, people on the team will do it also. Focus that energy on something positive instead of negative. It’s much better to say that a mistake was made and let’s focus on figuring out how to fix it.
- Public Shaming
There’s no need to rake someone over the coals publicly. It helps no one and it instills fear in others to not make a mistake, which causes long-term adverse effects. Keep it anonymous publicly and talk to the person privately.
Building a Safe Culture for Failure
Outside the Office
Creating a safe environment for failure does not need to start in the office. Many activities exist that can develop teamwork and promote useful skills in the work environment.
Some activities I suggest are:
- Playing a sports game like basketball
- Tabletop games like pandemic or codenames
- An escape room game or murder mystery dinner
Each of these suggestions is a game with an objective that promotes a common goal which the team needs to work together to achieve. My favorite activity is an escape room game because it is similar to a software project. There’s a time box of an hour where the team’s collective goal is to solve enough puzzles to escape the locked room. This game requires the team to have constant communication, some organization, good time management, the ability to adapt, how to prioritize, and good teamwork. Lacking in any of these areas makes it much harder to succeed. It also provides useful insights such as who takes charge, who helps out, and who needs more guidance. At the end of the game, the team could review what went well and where things could have gone better. For software folks, it’s pretty much like Scrum!
Inside the Office
To build a safe environment for failure inside the office, the first thing to do is correct any bad behavioral problems such as the blame game. Any of these behaviors will cause a drag on whatever positive impact you are trying to make. The next thing that can be done is increasing communication. This can be achieved by having an “open door” policy to welcome any team member to come. Another activity that can be done is to have jam sessions to brainstorm ideas or thoroughly flush out a plan. In general, increasing honesty and teamwork among team members will naturally increase communication also. More software development related changes are changing the software development to Agile or having bug postmortem to spread the knowledge.
Change for the Better
Remember: Failure is neither good nor bad! Don’t celebrate it or fear it. The critical lesson is to learn from the mistakes and do better next time. If your team’s in bad shape, how to steer the team out of the spiral? Some common scenarios that I have seen:
Getting too attached
Example: “I have spent so much time on this already. I can’t start over. There isn’t enough time. I need to make this work somehow.”
It’s hard to make a decisive call on when to restart. The tough part is threading lightly forward, but there’s usually some time element that can be relieved by breaking the task down into a smaller portion.
Taking safe known paths
Example: “I have always done it this way.”
It’s a cringe-worthy phrase. If nothing changes, there can’t be any innovation achieved. Sometimes a gentle reminder to try something new will push the person along a better path. Other times, sitting down with the person and having a brainstorming session yields excellent results.
Mistrust and lost confidence
Example: “This person always screws up. I don’t want to be dragged down.”
The team is filled with mistrust and people are more interested in their own performance. Team bonding events will help people know each other. Some quick and easy wins will help build up team confidence again.
Unable to recover
Example: “I messed up and I don’t know what to do now.”
It’s similar to getting too attached, but the difference is this person can’t think of a way to move forward by themselves. This issue is more common with junior personnel who lack confidence and experience. It’s another situation where a brainstorming session helps move the person along. Keep in mind that it’s best not to tell them what to do, but give them hints or leads so they can work it out themselves.
There are many articles on good concepts such as “fail fast and learn fast” and “failing forward”. The “fail fast and learn fast” principle is what Agile is built upon and could be used outside of Agile also. The “failing forward” principle has been around for over a decade. It has been debated among many people, but the fundamental concept is to treat each failure as a stepping stone toward success.