What About Failure?

Part 4 of 5 in the series Leading Technical Change

If we’re going to enable and support change, we’re going to fail, more often than we succeed, and we want to bake that idea in, early on, lest we fail both more often, and potentially more disastrously.

Here’s some thoughts around this NOT DEPRESSING topic. 🙂

LTC Technique Card

The weirdest thing about all this: it’s actually rather hard to tell when you’ve failed vs succeeded, working as midwife to change.

I’ve had what I thought were successes backfire horribly, inadvertently leading teams far astray. Ideas aren’t little structure tokens that we move from one brain to another, but are actually only ever real when they’re embodied. In that enbodiment, aye, there’s the rub.

Look how many orgs want to raise the quality of their output, and introduce test coverage metrics, for instance. That’s a whole lot of failed embodiment of ideas right there, and it’s actually endemic in the trade.


On the other hand, I once ran in to a fellow from one of the teams I coached, a couple of years later, and he thanked me profusely for what I did turning around that team.

I was flabbergasted. I considered that gig one of my more collossal failures, and I told him so.

“Not at all,” he said. “Nothing had changed when you left, except one tiny thing: the team’s sense that we had both the will and the power to change any damned thing we wanted. And that’s all it took. Now, two years later, we’ve actually adopted almost everything you proposed!”

Another note: failure scenarios are one of the places “Many More Much Smaller Steps” really shines.

Failing at a great big step often means failing at all the change you sought. Failing at a little one? Welllllllll, win some, lose some, there’s still plenty of possibility left.

And when you fail at a small step, but keep going on other fronts, I’ll tell you the truth, teams will often, over just a little bit of time, come back to that failed step and take another swing at it.

One of the most important ways having a coaching buddy — someone not in your team, maybe not in your org, maybe not even in your trade — who is also facilitating change: they can help you ease the sting.

I have found that a lot of coaches don’t take me seriously when I say they need a coaching buddy, but, honestly, you’re not gonna be good at taking care of your team if you can’t also take care of yourself, and a buddy is an excellent start on that.

Helping teams change is hard. It is the hardest work I have ever done. It is utterly naive to think that we won’t fail at it, and frequently.

Big-league ball-players get a hit between 30 and 40 percent of the time. And if it’s 40, they are paid a great deal of money to do it, because that’s really really good.

But we can say it negatively, too: These bozos fail to hit the ball 60% or even more!!

When you’re working for change, are you celebrating that you ever manage to hit the ball at all, or are you yelling at yourself because you don’t hit it every time?

You know which response I’d advise.

I mentioned that, if we don’t bake this idea into our plans, our assessments, our feelings, we can actually wind up creating both more and more dramatic failures.

Do you see the mechanism of how this can happen?

If I’m too worried about failure, I seek more control over my team. When I seek more control over my team, I typically create many more obstacles for actual successful change. Look, if bosses could create change just by controlling rules, there wouldn’t be any coaches.

Sure, you can force a little bit of change that way, people do, I have. But it isn’t sticky change. It’s just “pro forma get this person off my back” change, and the moment you look away, it’ll disappear.

Of course, the other direction from over-control is simply under-confidence. Teams — like my Dad used to say about dogs — can smell fear, ya know. 🙂

If you’re afraid of failure, it’s going to weaken your presentation, your creativity, your openness, even your warmth.

So anyway, think about this, and feel about it. It’s not a question of “if” some effort of yours fails, it’s absolutely a question of “when”. If you’re going to help teams in their efforts to change, you have to get this close to your center and keep it there.

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