Innovation does not come without discarding ideas, trying and failing. In complex systems with complex challenges, failure is inevitable and desired. If we need to prototype to sense our way forward we have to have a mindset that can handle failure.
On Saturday at the Art of Participatory Leadership in Petaluma my new friend Shawn Berry convened a session on failure and through listening to stories ranging from small prototoyping failures to business breakdowns and even deaths, I noted a few patterns that are helpful for groups and people to address failure positively nd resourcefully
Frame it up. In North America and Europe we have a cultural aversion to failure. Failure is equated with inadequacy. Our self-esteem is tied to our success. Our compensation and status is affected by failure. Fear of failure is prevalent in the culture. In order to combat this tendency, it is helpful to work with a group to get them acquainted to failing. For more playful groups improv exercises can be an excellent way to drop inhibitions to try something and fail. More rational groups might benefit from a little appreciative inquiry where participants recall positive failing experiences. Reflecting and sharing on times of failure and survival reminds us that it is part of the process.
Support the experience. While groups are experimenting and learning, succeeding and failing it helps to have support and coaching present in the process. Depending on the kind of work being done you can offer support to keep a group resilient and unattached. I have used several different kinds of processes here including the following:
- Simply pausing for reflection periodically in the process to notice what is going on. Slowing the process down helps to gain valuable perspective on what is happening and helps a group move on quickly from failure.
- allowing failure to occur and then taking the subsequent stressful thoughts to an inquiry process using The Work of Byron Katie. We do this often when working with groups in the non-profit sector for example, where the pressure to succeed is accompanied by feelings of fear of the results of failing.
- In indigenous and other colonized cultural settings I have often had Elders and healers present who can care for the more invisible dynamics in the field, especially when our work is going to carry us into some of the sources of trauma. When you are working in a place where people are operating out of deep historical trauma, the fear of failure can be laden with many many deep seated implications. Having people in the process who understand these dynamics is essential.
- Peer-coaching is a common way to build resilience in groups where trying and failing is important. When a team is trying to learn something new it helps to also build the capacity for them to be able to rely on each other. This is why so many teams value “cross-training.” When athletes train, they often work out in ways that are not related to their sport _ a skier training by rowing for example. Doing this helps them to learn to use their body differently and builds strength that supports their core work. Similarly, work teams can learn a lot about themselves by creating situations of safe failure such as through improvisational exercises, outdoor experiences, games and other non-work focuses. The skills learned there can help support the team when they knuckle down to focus on key tasks and can support constructive failure within the work domain. Ultimately these skills will build capacity if they increase the ability of the group to support itself through stressful times.
- Developing a practice of greeting failure with joy. My friend Khelsilem Rivers taught me this one. He is – among other things – an indigenous language teacher and using the tool kit “Where Are Your Keys” Khelsilem helps people become fluent in their indigenous languages. One of the barriers to rapid fluency is a fear of “not doing it right.” Khelsilem completely transforms the experience of failure by introducing the technique called “How Fascinating!” When a person (including the facilitator) makes a mistake, the whole group celebrates by throwing their hands in the air, leaning back and declaring “How Fascinating!” While it might seem contrived at first, the technique opens up the body, and greets the failure with a collective celebration. Blame and judgement is avoided, collective support is activated and learning is grounded.
Practices like these are essential to build into the architecture of processes where failure is inevitable if innovation is to occur.
Process the grief. When catastrophic failure occurs it can leave people grieving, frightened and cynical. If there is no way to process the grief then individuals often build their next prototype out of fear. If you feel you have been burned before, you might develop your next idea by building in protection against failing again. While that can seem prudent and safe, in reality, building structures out of fear is a much riskier proposition than building structures out of possibility. Without processing grief, a group or a person can be susceptible to being “defended.” I learned much about this state from Dr. Gordon Neufeld who is a child psychologist who has described this phenomenon in children. Taking a group or a person through the grief cycle using empathy, story telling and compassion can help free the emotions that are triggered in future learning experiences.
Building a mindset to embrace failure and support the transformation of the energy of failure is critical to groups developing the capacity to lead in complexity.
I’ve also written about failure here: