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Employing Failure as a Learning Tool

When my son was 3, my wife and I attended a parenting seminar. We were eager to learn from others the best way to raise a child and promote self-confidence, learning, and independence. What I learned went far beyond raising my child and helped me sharpen one of the greatest tools I have used as a leader. 

We have heard the mantra of failing forward in many different ways. It is a great lesson and shows us that we can and should learn from failures. They help make us be better, stronger, and smarter. What we don't always hear is HOW. This is where my son and the parenting class comes in. 

I have always encouraged my teams and employees to embrace and accept failure. For many that is hard to do, nobody wants to fail, or especially let others down. So creating an environment of failure acceptance is difficult.

When in the parenting class they talked about nature vs nurture in terms of lessons for the child. For example, a nurture based learning moment would be around teaching a child not to run into the street. You want to preseed that knowledge so your child knows not to venture out into a street. A nature-based learning moment could be setting a deadline for a chore or other responsibility. I typically tell my child to have something done by a certain time and then wait and watch. When he was younger he frequently decided to do anything but the chore that he needed to do. Time would be up, he would not complete the chore and get into trouble. He soon learned that instead of not doing the chore he would simply procrastinate then try to do it quickly in a few minutes right before the deadline. Again he would get into trouble and eventually he decided, on his own (and a little coaching), to get the chore done first, then enjoy the extra time and then recheck his work right before the time was up.

I wasn't fully aware I was using my business leadership skills on my then, 8-year-old son. In fact, I was and it helped me to refine my skills. Those nature-based learning moments are simply creating a safe environment for my son to fail and learn from that failure to improve. Creating a safe environment is just part of the equation, you need the full recipe to succeed:

  1. Create a safe environment for others to fail. It is more than just saying it, you have to demonstrate it. In some cases, you may have to lead by example, that all depends on your situation and teams. Make sure you promote it, reinforce it and seek feedback about it.
  2. Know when to create failure scenarios. Failing is not always acceptable and is not always an option. You don't want your teams failing on a big presentation to the board. Knowing when to create failure scenarios is important and also helps develop trust. Let your teams know that you like to create failure scenarios and you will be there to support them.
  3. Set artificial boundaries. Give yourself the time to coach and them time to implement corrections and course correct. If something is due 3 months out, set touch points once a month or bring in the deadline you set several weeks. The goal is to provide an artificial boundary that generates failure but time to recover. Do not set unrealistic boundaries! They need to be challenging but achievable for the individual.
  4. Stay engaged. You aren't done when you create the scenario and set boundaries. You have to stay actively engaged, watching and listening. You never know when a good coaching moment will arise and sometimes you may elect not to reach a failure point because of a good coaching opportunity. Delegate, set boundaries and followup.
  5. Coach, rinse and repeat. Once a failure point is reached be there to coach. Examine the failure together and create lessons learned. Assist in developing a correction plan for the immediate situation. It's a great idea to capture the learning moment for your 1:2:1 and go over the details in that meeting. Remember to celebrate the success of learning from the failure and the related success of overcoming it. Then you are ready to identify the next failure scenario, but remember to pace them out depending on the ability of the employee.

Those are just ideas, guide rails to help you implement a failure based learning tools for your team. It is important to take the concept and implement it in a way that fits your leadership style and team. There is no secret 3 step solution to greatness. With anything, you need to understand the intent and implement your vision.

Until our next discussion, take care and good luck learning!

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