Somehow that statement is worth keeping nearby in my work. For me and everyone I work with.
I spend a lot of time working with people who need or want to do something new. And no level of new work – innovation, boundary breaking, next levelling or shifting – is possible without failure. A lot of it. Much more often than not.
Today, working with 37 leaders from human social services and government in our Leadership 2020 program, Caitlin asked a question: “How many of you have bosses that say it’s okay to fail? How many of you have said to your staff, it’s okay to fail? How many of you have given permission to yourself to fail?” No surprise. No hands up.
There are many reasons for this, the least of which is that people equate failure in this system with the actual death of a human being. When that is the thought you associate with failing, of course you will never put yourself in a position where failure is an option, let alone likely. And yet, it’s impossible to create new things that work right out of the box. You need to build testing and failing into strategy if you are to build new programs and services that are effective.
This is where understanding the scale at which you are working helps: hence probe, prototype, pilot, program, process…five incrementally more robust and more “fail-safe” (in terms of tolerance) approaches to innovating and creating something new. But just having a process or a tool for innovating – whether it is Cynefin, design labs, social innovation, agile, whatever – is still not going to give you a resilient mindset in which failure is tolerable or possible. And this is as true for leaders as it is for people working on the project teams that are supposed to be delivering new and better ways of caring for children and families.
In our programs and in our teaching, we double down on working with improvisational theatre and music techniques and especially The Work, which Caitlin teaches and leads. That process is the primary tool we use with ourselves and others to work on the limiting beliefs, patterns, thoughts and cognitive entrainment that impedes our ability to embrace failure based approaches. Without addressing patterns of thinking, it is just never safe to fail, and when a change leader is hidden behind that block, there is no way to truly enter into strategic, innovative practice.
How do you sharpen your failure practice?