Chris Corrigan; Learning from Failure

Don't be chicken(Yes, I’m  popping my head up after a month of  heavy work and little inclination to stay at my computer as summer finally arrived in Seattle.)

I have long been a fan of learning from failures. In college, a friend of mine told me the day before I graduated, “I never met anyone who could fall down and get up so quickly.” When I picked up on Dave Snowden’s “safe-fail” experiment language I said YEAH!

Last month I happened upon a post by Chris Corrigan on just this topic. It was juicy and relevant. I work with many professionals for whom the risk of looking anything less than competent is not an option. This is a barrier. Chris sees this too.

The pressure that comes from perfection and maintaining a failsafe environment is a killer, and while we all demand high levels of accountability and performance, working in a climate where we can fail-safe provides more opportunity to find creative ways forward that are hitherto unknown.

My first line strategy is to role model. When I’m uncertain, I talk about it. When I am not sure something will work, I position it as an experiment. Just a shift in language can change the environment for risk.

Chris gets at this more clearly.

1. Be in a learning journey with others. While you are working with people, see your work as a learning journey and share questions and inquiries with your team.

2. Take time to reflect on successes and failures together. We are having a lovely conversation on the OSLIST, the Open Space facilitator’s listserv about failures right now and it’s refreshing to hear stories about where things went sideways. What we learn from those experiences is deep, both about ourselves and our work.

3. Be helpful. When a colleague takes a risk and fail, be prepared to setp up to help them sort it out. My best boss ever gave us three rules to operate under: be loyal to your team, make mistakes and make sure he was the first to know when you made one. There was almost nothing we could do that he couldn’t take care of, and we always had him at our backs, as long as he was the first to hear about it. Providing that support to team members is fantastic.

4. Apologize together. Show a united front, and help make amends when things go wrong. This is a take on one of the improv principles of making your partner look good. It is also about taking responsibility and having many minds and hearts to put to work to correct what needs correcting. This one matters when your mistake costs lives. Would be nice to see this more in the corporate world.

5. Build on the offer. Another improv principle, this one invites us to see what we just went through as an offer to move on to the next thing.

6. Don’t be hard on yourself. You can’t get out of a pickle if you are berating yourself up for being there. I find The Work of Byron Katie to be very very helpful in helping become clear about what to do next and to loosen up on the story that just because I failed, therefore I am a failure.

I like that last one. I am on part work/part vacation this week. I will have to practice that! Go for it. Don’t be chicken.

(Photo is mine from the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California, Davis)

9 thoughts on “Chris Corrigan; Learning from Failure”

  1. Reading that last line, where you expose your own vulnerability and not being exempt from error and a measure of regret. Ever the role model! Thanks for being, Nancy.

  2. A reassuring post, thank you. Being afraid of failure means being afraid to experiment and try things that do not have a certain outcome. Expecting to be a “perfectionist” at each learning step is restrictive. Children don’t worry about getting it right from the start. Just witness a young child pushing all of the buttons on a device just to see what happens. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I would add one more thing. This is difficult for some, but I found it is really useful BEFORE trying something to try to come up with contingencies in case of failure. I have found that coming up with the main plan (which might be risky), identifying risks, then contingencies in case of failure (cost/benefit analysis), makes the environment safer to try new things. For example, if a new system is proposed and many are afraid to try it because they may not be able immediately grasp it, giving a time frame and some ways to deal with the learning curve (i.e. failure for some), decreases the risk.

  4. Virginia, thanks for helping remind me of “plan b.” I am working with a client on a huge multiyear proposal, and we are starting to have the conversations about risk. There is this huge space between doing something safe and relatively limited, or going big and risking it all. Then there is the bit about working with risk along the way (reflection, learning, etc.)

  5. An excellent post and a great reminder. It reminds of a couple of pieces of advice that my mentor gave me many years ago about success and failure.
    He told me: you learn more from failure than from success, just make sure you fail quickly. The second was that when you become a manager, one of your most important roles is to shield your team and allow them the space to experiment and to fail, to help them get over the fear of failure and looking bad.

  6. Hi

    Great information in this post and I think the pressure that comes from perfection and maintaining a failsafe environment is a killer, and while we all demand high levels of accountability and performance, working in a climate where we can fail-safe provides more opportunity to find creative ways forward that are hitherto unknown.

  7. Virginia and Nancy,
    This side discussion about plan B reminds me of the intercultural differences I experienced when (as a German) working in Ghana. Germans are the master engineers of plan B ( and c) and love thinking about all kinds of ways that something could fail and what we would do if it did because that gives us a feeling of being well prepared especially when embarking on a scary journey into the unknown. In my (not risk averse) family it would be something you do to pass time and learn when for example traveling, that you ask each other: “So what would you do if we got kidnapped / had a flat tire / got separated etc.?”

    When planning the first big event with my Ghanaian partners, I wanted to know: “So what is the worst thing that could happen and how would we deal with it?”

    My new colleague was shocked but had the grace of explaining the mistake I had made to me: “If we start thinking about all the negative things that could happen, we get so discouraged that we don’t even want to start.”

    I think especially when working in the international context, it is interesting to explore the culturally different ways that people deal with mistakes and not push one ideal on everyone. Though, being the ever-pushing German, that is not easy.

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