Failing to fail

Posted by jlubans on January 15, 2011

This follows up my Committing to Magic post from October 24, 2010.

As unpleasant as failing may be, we learn from it. In my admittedly contrarian point of view, if we want to hasten learning, we should fail more often. Of course, losing or failing runs counter to our desire to do it right, to win, to reach the mountain top, not falter half way up.

There is a type of failure that we do not learn from – when we fail because we do not try or care enough to do our very best. There’s no learning from a mediocre effort.

The best coaches use a hard fought loss to make a team better. Just recently a highly ranked basketball team lost a game, I was impressed with what one player had to say after the loss: “This tape's (the game video) gonna be out there now. Teams are going to watch this tape to see 'This is how X got them. This is how we can get them.' Now we can just learn from this game, get better and look forward to (the next game).” There’s a player who does not fear failure!

My October 24 post was about how Orpheus Chamber Orhchestra musicians coached a student orchestra to play without a conductor. As readers of Leading from the Middle know, Orpheus plays without a conductor and still produces a world-class sound. If anyone can, Orpheus should be able to demonstrate to students how they go about making great music without a boss telling them what to do. Over the years, I’ve been impressed with some of the Orpheus’ coaches. Their coaching calls on the students to take ownership, to collaborate with each other in the playing, and to make decisions usually reserved for a conductor. On a rare occasion, I have seen Orpheus musicians who, interestingly enough, coach more like conductors and leave little room for a student orchestra to make its own mistakes. This avoidance of failure popped up in a follow up survey report on the most recent student orchestra learning how to play without a conductor: a few students recommended that Orpheus coaches act more like conductors!

I responded to the report's author with a question:
"Are these students allowed to 'fail'? I use the word advisedly. In other words, will a coach let the players go with a 'bad' decision if that is what the musicians want to do? Or, are these students looking for the 'right answer' from the Orpheus coach? It comes through in the report that the Orpheus musician/coaches had a pretty good idea of what the music should sound like and were not reluctant to direct the students toward that interpretation. Certainly, Mr. X did. The different coaching approaches left me wondering how clearly Orpheans understand their coaching role. I would say that the coaching at times is more what I see among sports coaches, who impose their will on a team to win vs. a coach who wants the team to develop and become highly effective.

When I think of applying the Orpheus model to a management class - with teams having to choose, develop and present a project - I can see where after training the teams in group dynamics and interpersonal skills, I would leave the groups alone - to let them figure it out, learning from their mistakes, their trials and tribulations. I'd look in from time to time over a semester and I'd be available if a rescue were needed but otherwise, it would be up to them. Up to them."

I’ve seen this rigged avoidance of failure before: in outdoor adventure events there is strong motivation to have all participants succeed. Whether I am teaching the event or participating in the event I am tempted to make success happen.
20110115-fear fail.jpg In belayed rock climbs, I’ve seen instructors literally haul up someone who has made a good effort but simply does not have the strength to make it the rest of the way. Most participants know the person did not make the full climb, yet we celebrate like he did. Maybe we are celebrating his good effort?
20110115-wall.jpgWhat happens when all members of a group cannot get over a 14-foot tall wooden wall? There’s a deep value, like for the losing basketball player, in appreciating good effort, in talking with "bruised and battered" participants about what went well and what could have gone better.

While teaching in Latvia I am going to experiment with self-managing teams with the “Self-managing team Project: Leading from the Center”. There’s a risk these teams will not do as well as I might want them to. After all, like the student orchestra, if left alone, a team might make poor choices, it might knot up with failed communication, drift along with no one leading, and it might settle for adequate rather than best. We will see. Here is the gist of the assignment:

Each team will organize itself, choose a topic (about a real problem or question for Latvian libraries), plan and prepare a study plan with defined roles for each member. On June 3rd each team will make a fifteen-minute presentation to the class about the study’s outcomes. The presentation of outcomes and recommendations will be in Latvian with a written English summary for the instructor.

Prior to team formation we will spend several classes on teamwork, self- directed work groups, conflict resolution, communication and peer coaching. Also, once the teams are formed, the instructor will attend two meetings of each team and will be available for consultation and coaching throughout the semester.
Following the presentations we will assess what each team learned about self-management and what went well and what could have gone better.

No doubt, I will be tempted, just like the Orpheus coaches, to intervene when the music is not as good as I think it should be; tempted to tell the team how to solve the problem instead of empowering the team to do it or fail trying. I will try to bear in mind that if I too assiduously protect them from failing, I am doing them a disservice.

If you have thoughts on how to improve this assignment, let me know.

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