Embracing Micro-Failure

How granting others permission, authority and even incentive to fail can lead to quicker, deeper, more lasting success.

“Look at all of your work as an experiment — a pilot — and plan upfront for several review points along the way that allow you to correct your course or exit altogether. First drafts are rarely your best work. It is the thousand little edits and mid-course corrections that create excellence. Smart failures are a badge of honor.”   – Larry Blumenthal

Here are a few thoughts on how leaders can enable micro-failure:

  • Permission to Fail – Let people know it’s okay to fail. And be explicit. (One team I know adopted the motto: “Have you failed today?”) Not only will it contribute to a positive team environment, but individuals with permission to fail also have permission to take risks and push boundaries, question assumptions, and ask for help when they need it.
  • Authority to Fail – Giving your colleagues, employees, or volunteers tacit or even explicit permission to fail does little good if they haven’t even got enough rope to hang themselves. It’s a lot easier to delegate tasks than to delegate authority. But real autonomy and decision-making power ensures credit as well as accountability. And it’s a lot easier to learn from a mistake we feel we own.
  • Incentive to Fail – It sounds counter-intuitive, but find ways to reward and celebrate failures (or at least the resultant lessons.) Regularly sharing micro-failures within a team, passing around your own “fail whale” trophy, and mapping past failures to current success can help make your organization a “fail-safe” environment.

After all,

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”   -Theodore Roosevelt

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The Thing about Revolutions

A lesson from my first summer doing “real” development work in Paraguay:

Aparently, the consensus among the “adults” at the school is that I am a revolutionary, inciting the proletariat to various acts of sedition and generally upsetting the delicate balance of their system. Oops.

Actually, it was a conscious choice. During my first oh, month and a half here at the school, it looked for all the world like the only hope I had of making changes was to start from the bottom up—work with the students because their leaders were if not physically, at least mentally absent more often than not. So I all but wrote them off and started working with the students, organizing workshops, doing interviews, etc. but mostly just working with them….and the goats…and the lettuce. It looked for all the world like any change here would happen in spite of the leadership, not because of it. And I was okay with that.

Right? Wrong!

Here’s the thing about revolutions: At first glance, it looks like starting from the bottom is the only way to go if you’re in the market. After all, that’s where the numbers are, that’s where the passion is, etc. However, looking a little more closely, one of the critical success factors of this type of revolution is a profound and sudden transfer of power at the top. In other words, starting at the bottom only really works of you can guillotine the ones at the top. Oops.

So, I’m adjusting my strategy a bit. And peace talks are proceeding nicely.