Sharing failure – simple concept and much easier said than done

One of the best books I’ve read on building a culture where creativity and innovation can thrive is Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull.

Perhaps it’s no big surprise given that Pixar is tasked with producing a volume of original entertaining animations every year.

Their blockbuster portfolio includes Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.

Ed Catmull is refreshingly candid in sharing his experiences and I learned many insightful lessons from him. However, the thing that stood out for me most were his views and experiences about risk, failure and vulnerability.

If you work in innovation or product development or have any role in driving change, thinking creatively or doing things in a different way then the clichés around failure will be familiar to you. You know like…

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston S. Churchil

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” Truman Capote

“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” Theodore Roosevelt

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”  Robert F. Kennedy

It’s not that I don’t agree with these quotes or the sentiment that we learn by our mistakes, it’s just a LOT easier to say it than it is to do it.

I learned this first hand a few years ago when I wrote a report on innovation. Part of my research was to interview people who worked in innovation. On the topic of failure, everyone agreed that it was a very important part of innovation. Everyone agreed that it was vital to share failure so both yourself and others could learn from it.

However, when I asked if people would like to share their failures in the report people either simply said ‘no’, or were happy to share their failures with me in conversation but would prefer I didn’t mention them in the report.

According to Ed, the managers at Pixar work hard to create an environment that supports both risk taking and failure. Ed states that it’s not the managers job to prevent risks. It’s the managers job to make it safe for others to make them. And this involves leading by example.

Ed tells a story about how he asked for feedback from the Pixar teams about blocks to getting the job done and it turned out a lot of the blocks were down to him. He read out the full feedback list in front of everyone at an all staff conference. He thanked people for their feedback and committed to making changes. That must have felt less than excellent. I think showing vulnerability like that takes some bravery.

I believe that in order to create an environment where creativity and innovation can flourish we must lead by example. How can we expect others to ‘fail fast and fail better’ if we are not able to ourselves?

I work with teams to help them create an environment where creativity and innovation can flourish, and as you might imagine, the failure topic comes up a lot.

What I’ve learned is that failure is emotional. The words people use to describe failure and how it makes them feel are powerful and emotive; devastated, ashamed, scared, horrified, stupid, humiliated, upset, distraught.

How we describe our learnings from failure are rational, facts, ‘I learned to always back up my laptop’ Not we were elated, excited, empowered…

We dwell on the feelings of failure over the good stuff that failure teaches us.

I’ve seen that when a team has felt vulnerable together by sharing their feelings about failure it creates a shared understanding ‘we all experience similar feelings of pain and remorse at failure’.

And once there is a shared experience and a realisation that you are not alone, trust builds, and over time it becomes easier to reveal your vulnerability and your failures and learn from them, because you know others will have empathy and will be open about their failures too.

If you are a manager, it’s your job to create that supportive environment where failure is talked about and learned from.

It is a simple concept and much easier said than done.

If you’d like some help then do get in touch

What fundraising teams can learn from improvisors

In my quest to help others succeed at innovation, I often challenge people to get out of their comfort zones, expand their knowledge and try something new. I believe that diversity of experiences, curiosity and an appetite for taking risks builds us into better innovators.

I know my clients who are dedicated to improving their creativity and innovation muscles because they are the people who are purposefully striding out of their comfort zones; they are launching themselves from zip wires, standing up and presenting in front of big audiences, taking evening classes on unfamiliar topics – including dissecting mice!

Inspired by my clients I challenge myself to purposefully stride out of my comfort zone too. (Also, I don’t believe you can ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself)

A while ago I thought carefully about what might really put me out of my zone. Doing improv scared me so I signed up for a six-week course. You know like in ‘Whose line is it anyway?’ where the people on stage improvise a scene based on whatever is thrown at them from the audience – hopefully they throw suggestions of scenes and characters rather than physical objects.

It was terrifying. And once I learned to manage the fear it was a massive amount of fun. I also learned a lot about team dynamics and what makes good teams work well together.

Google have recently completed some research into what makes teams successful. It took them 2 years and involved 180 teams*. They highlight 5 traits of successful teams. The fifth trait is what they call psychological safety.

“Imagine a situation in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture where managers provide air cover and create safe zones so employees can let down their guard. That’s psychological safety.”

Psychological safety is exactly the environment that a good improv team operates in. This environment is created by several fundamental rules.

1.The rule of ‘yes and’ This means that improvisers build on whatever the audience, the host or your team on stage with you ‘offers’. If someone shouts out that you are a camel with one hump on a holiday to Wales – you do it, if your host chooses that you are Hitler learning to use the internet – you do it and if your team-mate plays out being a frog auditioning for the next episode of Froggy the fattest frog on the lily pad (even if you don’t really know what that is) – you do it. The rule of ‘yes and’ means that you can’t fail, because someone else in your team will always ‘yes and’ your suggestion.

2.The rule of ‘your team has your back’ This means that whatever you do, for example if you freeze, fall off stage or even if you say something obscene your team has your back. As an improviser, your only failure is not stepping up to make the others in your team look good. If your team mate freezes, you step in with a line to help them out, if they fall off stage, help them up and make it part of the scene, if they say something obscene, ‘yes and’ their obscenity. You are in it together. When you know your team unconditionally has your back, something wonderful happens. You start to take more risks and you start to explore new opportunities.

3.The rule of ‘just do it’ This means that you just say the thing that comes into your head. Don’t filter, don’t overthink, don’t worry that it’s not funny, or appropriate or expected – just say it. If you say something (you think) is stupid it’s your team’s job to ‘yes and’ and make you look good. When we stop paying attention to our inner critic that inhibits our ability to ‘just do it’, a truly liberating thing happens and our creativity flows. Ideas get built upon and you often end up in an unexpected place that no one would have even dreamed of.

These three rules combine to create a powerful force. In a team, they create a high degree of trust, built from real experiences. High trust means that we start to feel more confident and less afraid of failure because the only failure is not stepping up and having your teams back. You don’t worry so much about what others think because you are focused on what success looks like and you are in it together. And when you are free of the constraints of what you should do, free from the fear of rejection and criticism by your colleagues when your focus is on helping others, in return creativity abounds, we have fun and energy is high.

Imagine the possibilities if we applied the rules of improv to our teams? What might that feel like? What new ideas might emerge? What better results might we achieve?

If you’d like some help to develop your team’s psychological safety then drop me a line.

And if you’d like a go at improv, check out the fabulously talented gang at Hoopla.

*Thank you, Dawn, for the inspiration for this blog.

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