Failure, failing, screwing it up, making mistakes. Things we prefer to avoid like the plague. Yet in our desire to prevent this, we also miss out on the good stuff.
Failure approached with the correct mindset and actions leads to rapidly embedded learning, increased competence, wisdom, innovation, humility. All of which are things we want to embody as a leader and wish our employees would develop.
Failure approached with a wrong mindset not only means we miss out on the above. It can also lead us to feel shame, reduction, contraction, hostility, toxicity.
I frequently hear this mantra, “fail fast, fail forward,” I’ve even used it myself. Sometimes it’s used correctly, other times it’s like slapping a sticking plaster on a large wound. Still bleeding but just not so obviously in your face.
An Epic Fail and a Not so Epic Fail
Here are two real situations from leadership training’s I’ve run.
The first was a guy, let’s call him Peter, who was creating and presenting his team vision to a group of other leaders. It’s a process that nicely broken down into steps; each once completed builds on the other, and support is given along the way. The final test is presenting the vision to all the other leaders in the room, who have been creating their team vision and will also present. We then give feedback on what worked well and share our thoughts and ideas on making it even more powerful.
Peter stood up and did his thing. And I mean did HIS THING, for whatever reason he had decided that he didn’t need to complete the steps and he certainly didn’t need to implement any of the presentation advice. What we got was epic boredom. He got feedback. He was none too impressed with his audience. He then shrugged his shoulders and with a laugh said, “well fail fast fail forward, “ and then sat down clearly indicating for the next person to go. I’m like ‘hold your horses,’ and I asked him, “what have you learnt?”
The rest of the conversation went on to illustrate that while he had indeed failed and spectacularly at that. He hadn’t learnt anything, no insights, not even regarding our experience of how we heard his vision. Our feedback apparently was all wrong. He isn’t the first person I’ve overheard use the saying as a mask to give the illusion of learning.
The second situation – a coaching practice.
Again they’d been practicing steps and were now putting them all together. There is a lot to be aware of, and no, I don’t expect people to do everything. At the end of the session, the observers give their feedback.
In this instance, the lady, let’s call her Jill, had done somethings well and yet missed various key aspects. She said she’d lost concentration, struggled to find the thread and then just kept on going in the vain hope that the conversation would lead to some insight or solution for the coachee. It hadn’t. Jill described it as an epic fail and a few more words besides. I said “OK, it didn’t turn out as you wanted it to and let’s explore for learnings” and there were several things, useful things. I then asked, “why did you continue when you’d realised what was happening?” She thought about it and had further insights.
Now if ever there was a good use of fail fast, fail forward, this was it. In 45 minutes, she’d learnt a lot. However, she wasn’t the only one to benefit. The observers who were still to practice their coaching also learnt a lot too. Not only from the observation of the session but from the quality of reflection and discussion afterward.
This was no epic fail but epic learning, which didn’t stop there and continued as the day went on. More pennies dropped, and things came together. As the course went on, participants were now happily sharing their mistakes and learnings rather than keeping them quiet and to themselves. This was also accompanied by a greater sharing of what they felt were successes and went well. Failure was no longer a demon in the room. Or in their mind.
No one sets out to screw up. And we do. Especially when we’re practicing something we’re not yet familiar with. Learning something while trying to avoid errors means we keep it small. Learning something and putting pressure on yourself to get it 100% right, wow pressure indeed, as if the thing we are learning isn’t challenging enough.
Our mindset or attitude to failure, while we learn something, makes a huge difference in whether we really do learn everything we could.
Our mindset or attitude to failure while we lead and support others also makes a difference. If we really want to build a workforce and workplace that is resilient, agile, and innovative, then re-examining our approach to failure could pay dividends.
About blue pea POD
At blue pea POD, we are in the business of enabling leaders and organisations understand who they are, their identity and purpose, creating the profitable future they desire now.
Blue Pea POD works internationally with a client base that includes the FMCG, Retail, and Pharmaceuticals sectors. You can subscribe to our podcast here and then if you would like to find out more about how we can help you get in contact here. Or call +44(0) 845 123 1280