This past weekend my 8-year-old son had his first basketball tournament of the season. When we arrived all the kids on his team were filled with confidence and ready to play. Their first game was a disaster, they lost 28-2, resulting in frustration and even some tears. The kids were devastated and it was hard to get them pumped up for the next game. Between games I provided words of encouragement and talked with my son about what he learned and what he could do differently in the next game. The good news was that by the next game the boys played better as a team and you could tell they were learning from their defeat.
This experience made me think about expressions we often use at work about failure like “fail fast,” and “celebrate failures.” We use these phrases because failure is an important part of learning and continuous improvement. Here are some reasons that we need failure.
Failure Solidifies the Lesson
First, failing often helps solidify a lesson. Like the saying, “sometimes you have to learn the hard way,” failure is the hard way. There is something about the experience of failing that helps us remember. I am certain my son’s coach told the team many times in practice that they need to pass the ball and take shots to be effective. As you may have gathered from the score of their first game, the players did not follow this advice initially, but their defeat showed them why this is so important.
Failure Keeps us Humble
Humility is a necessary trait in a continuous improvement culture. To be successful in this environment you must accept that you do not have all the answers. Before the tournament began the boys were incredibly confident (you could even say arrogant) that they would win, because they had been practicing so hard for weeks. Of course, none of the boys are Michael Jordan, and they quickly realized that there will likely always be another player who is better, stronger, or faster than them. Humility is a hard lesson to learn for an 8-year-old (really at any age), but it’s a valuable one.
Failure Drives Learning
Failing can drive learning because everyone wants to succeed. The key is to study the failure and learn where the gaps were so you can devise a plan to close those gaps. In a work environment a new process might not have fixed the issue because you may have been solving for the wrong problem. In the case of the 3rd grade boys Lightning team, their first loss drove them to try harder in the next game because they did not want to experience the same frustration and sadness they did before.
Failure Leads to Better Results
Lastly, failure can lead to better outcomes. Failing gives you a different perspective than you once had. Similar to how collaborating with others provides you with a new understanding of a process or situation, failure allows you see things from a new lens. I am certain that first game was an eye-opener for the players and coaches. This was a basketball game in real-time with fans, referees, and scoreboards. Definitely a different perspective from the tiny elementary school gym they were used to.
Remember to celebrate failures because they are a necessary aspect of continuous improvement. Failure can help solidify a lesson, keep us humble, drive learning, and lead to better results. But failure can only do these things if you embrace it rather than sweeping it under the rug.
Beyond Heroes by Kim Barnas