Failing Forward

My 8 year old daughter can’t ride a bike yet. We missed the optimal time to teach her when she had the ability to ride the bike but hadn’t yet developed a fear of falling off. Now whenever she gets on the bike, she immediately panics about falling off and so just puts her feet down. We had a number of stressful attempts to learn over summer, but it ended badly. I eventually lost my patience and may have recited stories to her about how ‘when I was a kid parents didn’t spend hours reassuring their kids to get them to ride a bike. My Dad just left me a few miles from home with nothing but the bike and by the time I got hungry I had figured out how to ride it’. This of course isn’t true – for some reason I seem to tell her made up stories about the trials and tribulations of my childhood that have no basis in reality. I think it’s just part of being a parent. Truth is, I have absolutely no recollection of how I learned to ride a bike – maybe I fell off it a lot????. After this experience I decided to leave the bike lessons for a while and just wait for a time when she really wanted to try again (or wait for my Dad to visit so he could drop her off far away and she would get hungry and figure it out ….seriously though, he would never do that, I need to stop making this stuff up). Out of nowhere last weekend she said she wanted to try to ride her bike. When I asked her what changed her mind – she said ‘I’m in a growth mindset Mom. I’m scared to fall off, but even if I do it’s ok because at least I’ll be trying’. Well ok then. First off, I need to publicly thank her 3rd grade teacher because this is a wonderful concept to be teaching kids. That day, my daughter tried over and over to ride the bike. She didn’t master riding a bike that day and she definitely fell down a lot, but she made progress.

The idea of growth mindset comes originally from psychologist Carol Dweck. She stated that “in a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.” Whereas people with a Growth Mindset believe their abilities and skills can be developed through dedication and hard work. Having a growth mindset and being ok with risking failure, are important for any individual or company to really develop, grow and be innovative.

The best way to achieve something is sometimes by making mistakes, falling down and then getting back up and learning from the experience. Failure has a bad rap. Most people, especially bosses and companies, are not comfortable with the idea of failure. Awareness of possible risks, especially potential lawsuits or negative media coverage, can lead companies to be even more conservative and cautious. Lack of comfort with taking risks and potentially failing, however, often results in organizations just sticking to what they already do and know, because ultimately it is safer. But being safe definitely does not lead to innovation, new ideas or progress.

Some of the most innovative and successful people and companies have experienced great failures. A favorite example is Thomas Edison, one of the most famous inventors in history who holds 1,093 patents to his name.  When attempting to invent a commercially-viable electric lightbulb, however, he failed over 10,000 times. His response to this incredible failure was “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” There are countless other examples of epic failures leading to great successes. Walt Disney’s first company went bankrupt and he was fired from a newspaper for ‘lacking imagination’ and having no original ideas. Oprah Winfrey was cut from a job as a news anchor because she ‘wasn’t fit for television’ and Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan.

Failure is often a valuable stepping stone to success, so instead of fearing failure and playing everything safe to avoid it, we should maybe try to get better at accepting failure as part of growth and figuring out how to truly learn from failure so that we move forward. Some amazing work can be achieved by having a creative and audacious goal and being willing to risk not achieving it on the first attempt.

Learning from failure is not simply reflecting on what you did wrong and then avoiding those mistakes. This does not create the kind of culture that is needed to truly embrace growth and risk taking, it takes a little more time and effort.

Firstly, when examining a new project that has risks associated then a good first consideration is to explicitly identify the potential risks associated with failure and conversely those associated with not moving forward with the project. If the dangers of doing something new are only losing minimal time and pride, then usually the risk of remaining stagnant will be a bigger concern. Of course if the potential damage could be a substantial amount of money or potential harm, then that, however, is a different story.

If failure does occur (and it will), then there are a few ways to optimize how you learn and grow from the experience.

Firstly, it is incredibly important to identify things that are failing as soon as possible. Encourage people to identify things that are not working well and be accepting of those who uncover problems. If a work culture doesn’t welcome problems, then people will keep quiet and not raise concerns. The result will be that everyone just continues to do something that ultimately doesn’t work for anyone. If something isn’t working then it helps if it is identified early, examined thoroughly and appropriate changes are made. Refusing to acknowledge problems in a timely manner often results in a huge waste of money and time.

It is also important to avoid simple blaming. It can seem quick and easy to just blame a particular person or team for something not working, but it is rare that someone deliberately causes something to fail. Using blame just promotes a culture where people are afraid to take risks and make mistakes, and it also doesn’t get to the real reason why the idea didn’t work in the first place. For example, if a team is unmotivated to work on a project then you need to ask why is there a lack of motivation? For example, do they not understand the rationale or end goal behind a project or have they been given more work with no offset anywhere else?

Going beyond superficial reasons and looking for the underlying causes really makes the experience something you can progress from. It does take time though to thoroughly analyze and reflect on why something didn’t work, which can be a challenge when things are expected to move quickly. It is valuable though to get feedback from people in different roles within the project who have varying perspectives. Look at all angles of what happened – what went right, what could be done better and what were the setbacks? Focus not on the ‘failure’, but instead on the experience and the lessons you learnt from it.

There is often trepidation to adopting this type of work culture as some may see it as almost encouraging failure, but if done well it actually can have the totally opposite effect. It encourages a focus on achieving success and working towards goals. Failing doesn’t stop progress, but instead is a stepping stone to success. A work culture that is supportive, learns from mistakes and takes risks will be much more likely to result in new ideas, products and services that can positively impact lives, than a culture focused on perfection and fear of failure.

So dream big – take risks and don’t be put off at the first hurdle. Everyone who learned to ride a bike fell off at some point, it’s the dusting yourself off and getting back on the bike that is much more important than the fall.

What failures have taught you the most and helped you move forward?

What are the biggest lessons you have learned from something not working out as planned?

Finally, do you have any tips for teaching someone how to ride a bike? (Seriously, that’s not my daughter in the picture – she’s in a growth mindset, but that hasn’t helped her balance yet – any suggestions are appreciated).

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