When failure is part of the rules

A few weeks ago, a woman in one of my workshops raised her hand and asked a very important question: “Are you telling us that it’s okay to fail?”

A group of incredibly smart, focused, and skilled future leaders was confused. No one had ever given them permission to fail before.

I told her what one of my mentors, Randy Nelson told me: life is not about error avoidance, it’s about error recovery.

I wasn’t actually encouraging them to fail, I simply encouraged this group to change their reaction to failure.

Most of us fail inward – meaning, our bodies tense up, we get smaller and we let the world know that we are ashamed.

Improvisers practice what same may see as a silly exercise called the “Failure Bow” – we turn failure from an inward defeat to an outward celebration. This small practice helps us act the way we want to feel.

Seth Godin speaks brilliantly about failure, here in this interview. Some of the highlights:

  • those who fail more often, win – The people who don’t win are the ones that don’t fail at all and get stuck, or the ones that fail so big that they don’t get to play again.
  • What are the risks that you can take that keep you in the game even if you fail?
  •  Following the rules can lead to a fear of initiation and a fear of failure. Where can you work where failing is part of the rules?

The concept of embracing failure is broad and confusing for some – depending on your profession, and your past experience. This concept is also juicy and full of connection to vulnerability, innovation, creativity, you name it.

Simply put…error recovery builds resilience, it provides a new kind of reward…perhaps one that we aren’t teaching or recognizing enough.


TOOL: The Failure Bow

Last year I had the privilege of meeting Ted DesMaisons – a fellow Improviser, also a blogger, Stanford Business School Graduate, and a very gifted man and teacher.

His latest blog post, The Transformative Failure Bow , talks about one of the greatest resources in an improviser’s toolkit: the ability to transform failure and a mistake into a celebration of boldness. It is a learned skill worth practicing. Here he describes the history of this great tool, how he teaches it, and how it creates transformation by shifting our reaction and definition of “failure”.

He asks the question we all could be asking — what are we rewarding? The effort, the result, or both? How do you define the result?

“As Matt Smith affirmed in a recent conversation, “The Failure Bow isn’t designed to reward or focus on the failure. It’s designed to reward the willingness to be transparent, the capacity to remain available in the present moment, and the ability to get back on the horse without residing in shame.” It’s that awesome eagerness that leads an athlete to say “Hit me another, Coach” or a student to insist “Let me try again.” We get knocked down, but we get up again.”

The Transformative Failure Bow 

What’s the drill – August 15: Failing on purpose

What’s your focus?

Competence, and being right? Or a focus on always moving forward?

Can you focus on “getting it right”, being okay with failure and moving forward? It may depend what “getting it right” means to you, but I believe you can have your cake and eat it too (and rhyme!).

The truth is, we can still move forward when we don’t get it right, and we can move forward faster, quicker, and hopefully cheaper than when our singular focus is just on being correct. 

No one wants to fail.

But, there are some times when we need failure to keep us moving forward – it is often where our best learning and growth (i.e. innovation) comes from.  We can choose to manage our reaction to failure, to greet it with a smile and use it to our advantage.

We may end up preferring failure to get us closer to where we want to go.

You can build competence by creating a safe place to make mistakes and fail.

Getting it right versus getting it completely wrong may just be in how you view failure.

Yes, and you failed. Keep moving forward. 




To embrace uncertainty, start with this strategy

Paul B. Brown, Leonard A. Schlesinger and Charles F. Kiefer (authors of  Just Start: Take Action; Embrace Uncertainty and Create the Future ) give us a secret to a happier, more successful life:

“The thing to remember is this: Successful people work with what they have at hand— whatever comes along—and try to use everything at their disposal in achieving their goals. And that is why they are grateful for surprises, obstacles, and even disappointments. It gives them more information and resources to draw upon.”

Life is unpredictable and uneven. The strategies we use to embrace uncertainty in our everyday life can be no different from the strategies we as Improvisers use on stage.

To embrace uncertainty is to:

1. View mistakes as gifts

2. Accept whatever is in front of you

This weekend I led an improv workshop in the wilderness for a group of 50 adults and kids.  At one point, we were speaking about failure and what Improvisers do when we “mess up”. To improvisers, mistakes are gifts. Actually…

To Improvisers, everything is a gift. 

One participant chimed in, “well, not all mistakes are okay, it depends on the situation”. True, I responded.  But to accept a mistake as a gift, to be more tuned into what is happening around us, to stay focused on the positive and in the present moment are all strategies that help us thrive and grow in times of failure. It’s a mindset. And, if this mindset makes us more successful (however you define success), it’s a mindset worth working towards.

So you’ve failed. Now what?

So you’ve failed, now what?

We know the definition of failure is changing – but is your mindset changing as well?

Your failure mindset is important not just for you and your overall mental health, but for the health of your organization and those you lead.

Improvisers learn how to fail forward – using failure as a positive launching pad towards what we call gifts – unexpected learnings or outcomes that wouldn’t have occurred without failure. This mindset, combined with the utmost trust on stage, gives us the courage to take risks, and to potentially fail.

In doing so we don’t so much focus on the failure, but instead what comes next.

Scott Edinger over at the Harvard Business Review has written a fantastic piece about those “next steps”….

  • Acknowledge the failure/admit the mistake – don’t hide in shame, accept responsibility
  • Take steps  to fix the problem – focus on what’s next and keep moving forward
  • Look for lessons – Focus on the cause of the failure and not the blame. Remember what you can and can’t control.
  • Adopt a growth oriented mindset instead of a fixed mindset. One leaves us helpless, the other pushes us forward in a positive, healthy direction.
  • Be kind to yourself – take a mental or physical break when you need it. 
  • Talk  about it – Find someone you trust and seek out the help you need. 
  • What’s next? What small wins can you achieve now to keep you failing forward. How can you take back control?

Failure comes in all shapes and sizes, but one thing we know for sure is failure is inevitable – learning what part of the failure puzzle you can control helps you fail faster and fail forward. 

Who in Your Company Can Say “Yes” to Innovation, Without Permission? – via Harvard Business Review

It’s no secret everyone wants to innovate and to be innovative, and you can propel it forward by adding a lot more of the word”yes” into your vocabulary.

I don’t mean saying yes to more meetings, more red tape, and more hierarchy -but instead, saying yes to more PLAY.

“The truth about big innovation is that you get what you play for. If that looks like a typo — if it’s jarring to see “innovation” and “play” in the same sentence or to hear anyone suggest that you, a manager, should play at anything — then this blog post is for you”, write Mark Sebell and Vijay Govindarajan in this latest post from the Harvard Business review. 

Everyone – leadership included, should come to play.

What it means to play is to be more open to new ideas and to have the ability to test out, and toy around with products or inventions you may have scoffed at in the past. Innovation could leave you feeling vulnerable, and risking failure – and you’ll need to asses the level of risk that’s right for you and your organization. But, when everyone comes to play, and it’s easier to get on the field instead of sitting on the sidelines, you’re at least putting more ideas on the field than watching them go by, judging them as they pass. Playing, in this case means removing the barriers that were once in place so that you can say “yes, and” where you used to say, “yes, but”, and letting teams run with an idea for a little while so that they fail faster and better instead of never trying at all.


The organization of the future – where failure is an option

Last week, San Francisco hosted the Wisdom 2.0 Business conference – a gathering dedicated to harnessing the innovative mindset at work and creating the conditions for innovation to occur.

Key to this  mindset is having the courage to fail.

The definition of failure is changing and innovative companies of the future believe failure is an option, a necessity.

Organizations of the future will focus on what failure builds, instead of what it destroys.

Organizations of the future believe you can  train the courage to fail, and the ability to manage fear around that “failure”.

But it all starts with the organizational mindset.

Training the courage to fail is something I learned (and still actively practice) in Improv classes.

It was there I learned:

  1. How to fail happily, visibly, and how to embrace failure
  2. How to view mistakes as gifts and use it in a productive fashion
  3. How to use a failure mindset or mistakes as a way to gain trust, connection, and support across a team
  4. The more risks I take, and the more I fail – the more I learn, grow, change, improve.
  5. How to own up to my mistakes and to not be afraid to try again.

I was trained on how to fail. But, I was in an environment where failure was an option so my learning and development was accelerated.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better. But make sure the failure mindset you train extends outside the classroom.



The changing definition of failure

Yesterday we discussed how taking a positive approach to failure can lead to innovation and enhanced creativity.

When we as individuals and organizations change not only our definition but overall mindset around what failure is, we open ourselves up to taking more risks, seeking new connections, not getting bogged down in what we did wrong, but instead focusing on what we did well and can replicate.

Call it positive psychology, call it “looking for the bright spots”, call it “embracing failure” – the truth is the definition of failure is changing in a positive direction. 

What is your definition of failure?

I believe failure is neither black nor white, right nor wrong – but it can lead us closer to the truth, to deep learning experiences and to the insights that can help to create a more meaningful life.

Here is how my definition of failure shifted once I began taking Improvisation classes:

The old –  failure is often very personal. Just the word alone has a stigma associated with it, and often brings up feelings of shame. Failure causes an inward, closed-off response.

The new – a failure is only a true failure if there is nothing to be learned from the experience. When we aren’t punished for failing, we feel less fear to take risks, to seek out new learnings and to commit fully to whatever it is we are doing. Failure lifts us up instead of weighing us down.

Do you tend to see the positive, or the negative when you look at failure?

Tools including emotion regulation, mindfulness, and self leadership can help to moderate your relationship to failure.

What we know is, with most things – we have a choice.  We can work to strip the emotional (and often very personal) charge from a failure situation so that we view a “mistake” as a real gift.